Keeping A Cooking Diary
A couple of weeks ago my friend Todd came to dinner. Todd is the brilliant website brain who helped me create and build TheCityCook.com. We met about seven years ago as I was trying to find someone who understood my ambition for bringing an urban cooking sensibility to the web and we bonded over html code and stories about our favorite neighborhood grocers.
Part of our unspoken deal as friends and website collaborators is that I cook for him. He'll send an email and suggest dinner and I know that means he'll come for a martini and whatever I happen to be cooking.
I make dinner nearly every night for my husband and myself and far prefer eating in to eating out. If I were eating solo, I think I would end up cooking some chicken and spinach or some other green vegetable over and over again. But once I am responsible for someone else's dinner, I am motivated to delight them. This doesn't necessarily mean something elaborate. On the contrary, I find that most people prefer something simple but made with good ingredients that are cooked carefully.
I always let my guests know what's on the menu to prevent any problems and also, I hope, to give them something to look forward to. I choose what we'll eat; after all, I'm responsible for choosing and making the meal based on what's in season, how busy I'll be on the day I'll be making dinner, the cost of ingredients, and also what I think I cook well. If I'm cooking for someone for the first time, I'll check on food allergies, health issues, and a certain amount of likes and dislikes. To a point. If you hate lamb or prefer fish, I listen. It's rare that a guest tries to specify textures, sauces, spices, and how much dairy should be in a meal, but it's happened to me and there's nothing that can make you not want to cook for someone then being treated as a short order cook. This is a subject for another time.
Todd professes to love everything I make, makes no demands, and always eats with pleasure -- often asking for seconds -- so all the more that I try hard to please him. I began to write an email to him with the menu: a salad made with Greenmarket baby beets and arugula, broiled line-caught swordfish with hot paprika, broccoli rabe with garlic and red pepper flakes, and a fruit galette, hopefully with gooseberries if I could find them. But mid-menu I got a panging feeling and instead asked him a question: "Do I make broccoli rabe for you every time you come for dinner?" His face-saving (my face) answer: "Almost, but I like it a lot."
I have cooked dinner for him dozens of times and he's never mentioned it. How could I have not ever noticed that I was a one-note vegetable cook?
It seems we sometimes need to write things down.
When I first began to cook for others I bought a spiral notebook to keep track of my menus. I was still learning and being insecure, I wanted to be sure that any mistakes would be remembered (by me) and not repeated. So I'd list the date, guests, and what I'd serve, sometimes noting where the recipe was from and if it was good enough to make again. Sometimes I'd add a note about a special wine, especially if my guests brought it, and anything else I thought I'd want to remember.
In the past few years I got out of the notebook habit. Maybe I became more confident, or just too busy to take the time. But on my last trip to Italy, I made a chance discovery in a small shop in Rome that helped me get back into the habit.
While browsing in Cartoleria Pantheon where they sell beautiful hand-made stationery, I came across notebooks called "Inviti," or Guests Book. Its covers are hand-colored Florentine paper, bound with a cloth spine and a satin place-marker ribbon. The interior is filled with identical pages pre-formatted for detailing dinner parties. Each left page features a table outline to mark where guests had sat; the right page had sections for recording the guest list, menu, wines, table decorations, and anything else important to the dinner. Remembering my neglected scribbled notebook back home in New York, I bought one "Inviti" for myself, and another for a friend who shares my love of entertaining at home.
I've never lived in an apartment with a dining room so keeping track of table decorations and seating charts doesn’t fit with how I entertain. Living in small spaces means it's likely we're setting up a table in the living room and gathering a mix-up of available chairs. So despite the format of my beautiful new "Inviti," my note keeping would continue to be more about the food and for whom I cooked it.
To help me get back into the habit, I re-read my previous journal. With sweet surprise I discovered a diary of two decades of friendships, describing times spent around a crowded table, sharing meals and pieces of our lives. Its first entry was for Christmas dinner in 1990, which I made for my then-new husband's family. The meal had six courses, including homemade paté, my first try at baking crackers, soup, roast goose, three sides, a cheese course, and 2 desserts. I clearly had something to prove.
I also found notes that triggered forgotten memories of times spent with friends whom I've since lost and deeply miss. It was like a gift that someone secretly left for me and I vowed to return to keeping such notes.
Inventing New Same Old Things
As we've seen all too much lately, there's much that can pull away at the sanctuaries in our lives. A small thing like a notebook scribbled with the details of shared meals can become a comforting treasure. And while we can keep notes on a computer or smart phone, instead I encourage you to buy a notebook, preferably a pretty one that you'd be glad to see sitting out on your kitchen counter, and begin to keep a cooking diary.
Besides making memories, keeping a diary has a practical purpose: it can save you from repeating a menu for guests who are far more likely than you to remember what you cooked. Like all that broccoli rabe I made for Todd.
In her timeless and hugely witty book, Home Cooking (Knopf, 1988), author and home cook Laurie Colwin wrote about cooking repeats in a chapter she called "The Same Old Thing:"
"For more years than I like to think about, a variation on baked chicken was my party standby, and with it I always served the same old thing: creamed spinach with jalapeño peppers. I could not get enough as the song says, of this wonderful stuff. My friends like it too and I was happy to pass the recipe along. My friends fed it to their friends, and so on. By now, probably half the people in the Western Hemisphere have eaten this savory dish….
After about five hundred or so casseroles of creamed spinach with jalapeño peppers, I felt it was time to move on to a new side dish. For a while I was stuck on baked polenta with cheese, but eventually I settled down with orzo.
Orzo is a rice-shaped pasta which can sometimes be found in the spaghetti section of a supermarket, and can always be found in Greek or Italian specialty stores. I am not much of a rice cook, although I have tried and tried. I have sautéed the rice first, put tea towels under the lid, steamed it in the oven, but I never get it right. Orzo, on the other hand, never fails.
Orzo with butter and grated cheese is very nice. Orzo with a little ricotta, some chopped parsley and scallion, butter and cheese, is even better. Orzo with chopped broccoli and broccoli di rape is heaven, and it is also a snap. While you cook the orzo, steam the two broccolis -- the amounts depend entirely on how many people you are feeding -- until tender. Chop and set aside.
Drain the orzo and throw in a lump of butter. Stir it in, add the broccoli, some fresh black pepper and some grated cheese, and you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire."
At a time when many of us would gladly cook a home meal for a politician we admire -- if only we could find one -- I agree with Laurie Colwin that "the same old thing never goes out of fashion."