Flipping the Skillet: How Cooking Won My Heart

IMG_3263Sometimes the best meals aren’t the glamorous ones. Take right now, for example. It’s mid-July and the weather is cool and heavenly. The city of Boston is lively and aglow. There are a million new restaurants and award-winning ice cream flavors and tacos that would probably make my heart sing. People are drinking cooling cocktails and talking loudly over one another at bars. I’m sure the esplanade is full of runners and the Charles River is reflecting the fading sun. And yet, I am sitting in bed in a sweater, under the covers, eating a bowl of black beans. Specifically, black beans stewed with onions and leftover roast chicken, with a dash of vinegar, cooked not by me but for me, by someone I love.

It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re 24. You have a good job and a desk with a view, a big kitchen with two windows that let in the morning breeze, and are by all accounts the luckiest girl in the world. And yet, there’s this nagging sensation that runs deep—that you aren’t where you need to be yet.

I never actually had a something I wanted to ‘be when I grew up.’ I always knew I was passionate, but after my short-lived dreams of being an opera singer (sorry, siblings, for stationing myself in the echo-y stairwell for hours at a time, belting out ballads where they sounded the loudest) my dreams became less specific. In college, it was easy to indulge in the challenges of my classes, analyzing paintings by and working laboriously through esoteric texts. But I had this fear of not knowing what I’d be good at.

Then I flipped over a cast iron skillet, filled with my fist real baking endeavor: a tarte tatin. No, I hadn’t made the crust by hand, and yes, I still sound like a fraud when I try to pronounce it, but there was something about those amber-colored apples, soaked with caramelized sugar, and the way they held together on the plate that told me all I needed to know.

Cooking is an act of love, but until now I’ve mostly been on the receiving end. I remember visiting my sister in Minneapolis, where she’s lived for the past 5 years. It was late fall, and I got off the plane and ran to her car though the freezing Minnesota rain. Her fiancée was away so we had the apartment to ourselves. Her living room, spacious and lovely, has wood floors and floor-to-ceiling shelves, brimming with everything from Tolstoy to books on bees, poetry, and food. And yet, as always, we gravitated toward the kitchen. The house was freezing, and we bundled in blankets, sat in stools by the counter, and ate sunken apple honey cake she’d baked that day. It’s hard to explain just how that cake tasted—sweet, yes, and pillowed with the lightness of small apples, but also of caring and sisterhood. I’ve never felt so much like a little sister as when I ate that cake. It tasted like all the days and hours we’d missed because we live so far apart.

Just a few months ago, I visited again. It was May, but the weather still hovered around 50°. Her fiancée Ed was there this time, and Bridget fed both of us: flour tortillas, warmed in a skillet, filled with the scraped green roundness of a ripe avocado, sprinkled with sea salt, squeezed with lime. Not glamorous. But it tasted like the indulgent comfort of a cold day in May, and the unfurling excitement of an upcoming marriage.

Just like that, this bowl of beans took me from the apprehension of uncertainty to the simple perfection of salty chicken, the slight crunch of cooked onions, the realization that gratitude is more fruitful than anxiety.

I’m learning now to cook with the ease I so admired in my mom and sister. Here are some things I cooked for two old friends who just turned 25. (Actually, the birthdays were more of a technical excuse to make cake.)

Menu:

Chilled cucumber and avocado soup with mango salsa

Roasted chicken with salt

Raddichio salad with Manchego

Upside-down apricot cake with Greek yogurt whipped cream

For the soup I went to Food52, as always. The original recipe is here, but I made adjustments. (I skipped the lime and went easy on the scallions. The flavors of avocado and cucumber are too delicate to compete with bitter scallions and the abrasive sweetness of limes.) Another method for this soup would be to use only cucumbers, and then to stir in a light avocado crème to serve. As for the mango salsa, I make variants of this all the time (adding red onion, for example). It’s easy and summery and 100% healthy.

Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup

  • 2 ½ large cucumbers, peeled and cut into rough slices
  • 1 medium avocado
  • 1 scallion, green and white parts included, chopped
  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon sea salt (to taste)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
  • A few drops of olive oil

Mango Salsa

  • 1 mango, cut into ½ inch cubes
  • 1 or two tomatoes, largely diced
  • 1 or 2 ears’ worth of shucked corn kernels (raw)
  • ½ cup cilantro, loosely packed and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Sea salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Blend all soup ingredients together in a blender till smooth, adding enough water to achieve a perfectly creamy texture (I barely added any!).
  2. Toss the salsa ingredients together in a small bowl. Transfer soup to four serving bowls. Top each with a half cup of the mango salsa, and serve.

IMG_3269 IMG_3270 IMG_3272 IMG_3273IMG_3274I felt it was high time I learned to roast a chicken. It’s one of those things you need to know how to do if you want to be a self-respecting cook. So I overcame my admitted squeamishness at dealing with a whole, raw bird, and turned to Alice waters, whose recipe my mom swears by. It’s this simple:

  • Whole roasting chicken (about 3.5 lbs)
  • Salt
  1. The night (or a few hours) before, coat whole chicken in salt and some pepper. Make sure the salt gets in all the crevices of the bird (including the bottom and center cavity). Wrap it in parchment paper and put it in the fridge.
  2. Plan for 2 hours total prep and cooking time, because the most important thing is to take the chicken out of the fridge an hour before roasting it. The bird should be at room temperature when it goes in the oven.
  3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place chicken in a lightly oiled pie dish, breast side up. Roast for 20 minutes. Remove and flip the chicken over. Roast breast-side down for 20 minutes. Remove, flip to breast-side up one more time, and roast for another 20 minutes. From my experience, this timing was pretty foolproof. Make sure to let the chicken cool for 10-15 minutes before serving, so that clear, golden juice has a chance to gather at the bottom of the dish. Spoonfulls of that are all you need to season.

The salad is a Genius Recipe by Toro Bravo that never fails. Soak the chopped radicchio in ice water for 20 minutes—it removes the bitterness. Then shower in grated Manchego and dress with any vinaigrette.

As for the cake, just follow David Lebovitz’s recipe to the letter. (Read his blog while you’re at it. He is hilarious and real and observant, and his writing will make you look up flights to Paris tout de suite.) The cake was perfection, if I do say so myself, and so easy! I was inspired to accompany it with this whipped cream, but vanilla ice cream would do the job swimmingly.

IMG_3261 IMG_3262 IMG_3264 IMG_3265 IMG_3266 IMG_3268The dinner:

IMG_3258

The aftermath (not pictured: all of us, in cake and wine-induced stupors)

IMG_3259Now go bake that cake!

Xo,

Grace

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