I think it all started with the naked Julia Child impressions. We were newly married and everything was fun. We weren’t entirely naked while cooking, of course – aprons were a requirement and oven mitts (worn wherever) were allowed. There were other rules, too – no deep-frying, for example, for obvious reasons. Using plummy, authoritative voices we would do a fictitious play-by-play of dinner preparation: “Place the turkey in the oven for 350 minutes at 120 degrees. Oopsie! [take slug of wine].”
Of course, at that stage it wasn’t really a turkey. We were the newly married poor and subsisted on mac-n-cheese, frozen burritos, and anything else that cost $.27 or less. Cooking was simple, fun, and entertaining. Not that we could afford to entertain. All of our friends should be grateful for that.
We didn’t get serious about cooking until years later, when friends of ours came up with a recipe they called “Experimental Chicken.” It was wonderful, and was wonderfully different every time they cooked it. “By God,” I said, “if Tom and Leslie can cook, so can we!”
At the time, we weren’t foodies. Either they didn’t exist yet, or hadn’t made their presence known to the likes of us. Our early attempts at cooking were really “modifying” existing products. We’d take Hamburger Helper “Beef Stroganoff,” substitute stew meat for hamburger, and use real sour cream instead of the packaged powder that was supposed to morph somehow into a sauce. It may not have been actual cooking, but it was an improvement over the boxed version. We also improved mac-n-cheese by adding tuna and peas to it. Protein and veggies! What a great idea!
Then we branched out into original one-pot meals. (We still prefer one-pot meals. Both of us hate to do dishes.) “Cowboy beans” was one of our specialties: ground beef, pork-n-beans, and cheese. Call it minimalist cooking if you want to be kind. As we became more adventurous we began to add ingredients like refried beans, tomatoes, chiles, green peppers, onions, and assorted spices, then serve them with tortillas and salsa for do-it-yourself burritos. We never went back to the $.27 frozen ones.
At last the Food Network came into our lives. Stuck at the time in severe depression, I watched the shows endlessly for the calm voices and helpful tips. I finally learned the term “flavor profiles.” Our cooking life was revitalized. I became the chef and my husband was the sous-chef.
We seldom used recipes. The experimental nature of the original chicken inspiration had stuck with us. We belonged to the look-in-the-fridge-and-pantry-and-go from-there school. “Cut that chicken into bite-sized pieces,” I would say. “No, my bite-sized, not yours. Now pass me the paprika, please. The smoky paprika. Now, everyone into the pool! Mixy-mixy!” We developed our food repertoire to include a killer ratatouille (see wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and something that resembled a quiche.
Then came a bigger change – my back wouldn’t allow me to stand at the stove and the tremor in my hands made me dangerous with a knife. So Dan took over as head chef, and I became the food consultant. His first attempts were a little sad. “A casserole needs some moisture in it – milk, stock, or something – to hold it together, especially if there’s rice or noodles involved,” I would gently suggest.
Gradually Dan came into his own. I only had to answer questions about whether I wanted my fish baked or broiled, or whether sage or lemon pepper was needed. Once I explained them, he instantly caught on to shepherd’s pie and frittata. They’re now his signature dishes, so lovely that we could post pictures on the Internet if we were into food porn, and tastier than many a restaurant meal.
I still fondly remember those days of naked Julia Child impressions, though I have no particular desire to recreate them. But since then, our cooking partnership has evolved just as our marriage has – for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, with laughter and spice, and a willingness to let each other take the lead at different times. All in all, a tasty recipe for two.
This post first appeared on BlogHer, on March 26, 2016.