Don’t Ask ‘What’s Cooking?’

I have written before about being impatient in the kitchen. I want to be one of those breezy hostesses with hundreds of dishes in my repertoire, feasts that I can conjure at an hour’s notice for twelve people. Never mind that most dinner parties I’ve co-hosted have been more party than dinner–I have tremendous expectations for the entertaining I will do in the future.

I have it all planned: You arrive at my small albeit cozy and candle-lit home, greeted by a whoosh of  warm air and a plate full of appetizers. We will tumble into the tiny kitchen that miraculously holds every guest and you’ll settle down at a little table full of fresh bread with spiced oils and fruit and trade animated stories with our friends, laughter tinkling quite merrily, probably. I will float from the pantry to the stove to the fridge, pouring wine with one hand and whisking salad dressing for a bowl of sparkling greens in the other while I pull some impressive beast with roast vegetables from the oven only to turn around and present a lattice-top pie from…where? My bosom? You have no idea, because you’re dazed by my culinary mystique. Dish after fragrant dish materializes in front of us, and once we’ve finally eaten and drunk ourselves into a comfortable haze, we rise from the table to find that someone has already loaded the dishwasher.

Basically, I want my kitchen to look like that scene with the dancing cutlery in Beauty and the Beast. It’s not gonna happen.

Aside from my somewhat flawed expectation that every meal should be a feast (I blame Brian Jacques), I have considerably little experience with kitchen basics. I can chop vegetables, but I don’t really know how. I eat meat, but I don’t prepare it for myself because I don’t trust myself to cook it well. I love the idea of making my own culinary staples, but there are so many that I don’t know where to start. There are plenty of unusual food facts tucked into my brain, but I still have yet to make a decent fried egg. Cooking is neither easy nor pleasant right now; it’s actually sort of infuriating. It’s time to start learning.

This month I’ve endeavored to get better acquainted with the kitchen and the foods I like so that every cooking experience won’t feel like a chore or worse, a disaster. Some of this education has been informal–I made a steak! All by myself! I didn’t think I liked steak!–but for the more serious business I’m turning to the professionals. By the end of October, I’ll know how to wield a knife, bake bread, and brew my own beer. And what more do you need, really?

Spiky Supper

Tonight, I wanted a hands-off meal. I wanted dinner to fix itself. I needed to concentrate on packing my bags and composing myself before a very busy weekend at BlogHer Food in Seattle, which, trust me, is more exciting than a free trip to the Academy Awards in my world. Not that I’ve ever been offered such a thing.

But I am going to BlogHer, where I’ll be meeting my boss David Leite (along with many other talented writers and bloggers) in person for the first time, and I am psyched. I have been looking forward to this for months, and I’ve been hitting the blogs hard to see who’ll be in attendance this Friday and Saturday–it seems prudent to brush up on some names and faces before I mingle with a seething mass of food-and-word lovers.

So, I’ve been distracted. This evening I was almost too excited to eat, let alone cook, so when I found a lone artichoke–the most laid-back meal I could imagine, in terms of cooking–in the fridge, I didn’t think twice.

I should have. I’d never cooked an artichoke before. Pssshh, but you just plop it over boiling water and steam it til it’s done! No big deal! A baby could do it! Ha. Ha. Ha.

I nestled the ‘choke in a steamer above a few inches of water, and trotted off to my room, where I intended to watch one episode of something short and frivolous before checking on dinner. I had a vague idea that it would take about 30 minutes to steam an artichoke, but hadn’t even bothered to confirm.

And here is where a good deed that I performed rather grudgingly paid off and saved the day. Earlier this week, I installed a smoke detector in our hallway in order to appease the landlady make our home very safe. We’d had one–well, part of one–stuck on the ceiling for the past eight months, but it lacked batteries and anything resembling a “detector,” and since our house is all of four rooms and a hallway, we were never terribly concerned that we might not notice a fire. I was more intent on avoiding the stink-eye from our landlady when she brought a prospective tenant by, so I went ahead and hooked it UP. The new detector is sleek and subtle, and has a special silencing button that you can hit should your cooking smoke drift a little too far out of the kitchen…

…which is exactly what happened tonight, when a polite but urgent beeping jolted me out of tv-land and back into the world where boiling water will evaporate quickly and old pots will scorch. I wrestled the pot from the clutches of the stove and flipped on the kitchen fan before turning back to that stupid overgrown thistle, which wasn’t even close to tender. After 20 more minutes in a new steam bath and much swearing on my part, the artichoke was good to go–sort of. Perhaps it wasn’t a very good one, or maybe it had just spent a little too long accidentally smoking in its own essence before the heroic rescue, but it made for an extremely underwhelming meal.

I consoled myself with extra garlic butter, and left to meet my friends for a beer.