When we get new neighbors, I usually take them a plate of baked goods. If they’re lucky, the newbies moved in between October and December, which my husband dubbed “Baking Season.” Baking Season starts with cream cheese sugar cookies shaped like fall leaves and moves onto maple cream pie, apple pie, maple sugar rugelach, and candy cane meringues.
The new neighbors usually bring back an empty plate and sexist mouthful of compliments. “You’re a fantastic cook! Your husband is so lucky!”
“Thanks. But actually,” I explain, “my husband Andy is the real chef in our house. You should taste his pot stickers or homemade ravioli. I only bake.”
“Uh, er, um, really?”
“Yep. I’m a whiz at the oven, but terrible on the stove top.” I tell them.
And off they go, perhaps contemplating their default assumptions about women in the kitchen. Or maybe they make the distinction between baking and cooking for the first time.
I, on the other hand, have been pondering the differences between baking and cooking for years.
Because while I can make a Devil’s food cake with poured ganache frosting to die for, I really, really suck at cooking.
And I hate sucking at stuff.
Currently, Andy is disabled (gruesome pictures on Instagram).
Two months ago, Andy tore his quadriceps tendon. Maybe he was trying to one-up my torn quadriceps muscle. Maybe Andy’s just got problematic tendons, since he already ruptured his Achilles tendon. Maybe all Chinese-Americans have problematic tendons, cuz look what just happened to poor Jeremy Lin.
Whatever the cause, the result is brutal: surgery involving drilling holes in Andy’s bones to reattach the tendon, then months with the knee immobilized, raised and iced. Once his knee returns to being orange-sized as opposed to melon sized, he can expect 6-12 months of physical therapy.
Worst of all, he can’t cook. (I say this is the worst part. Andy disagrees. You can probably guess what activity he can’t do that’s got him super upset.)
My siblings understood that the loss of the household chef was a calamity of the highest order. We all grew up with food issues; we all married people who are amazing in the kitchen. My sibs chipped in and sent a generous GrubHub certificate. Several of my girlfriends also dropped off dinner.
I picked up a lot of take out. But eating out is expensive and often unhealthy.
At some point during Andy’s lengthy recovery, I would have to cook.
God help us.
My first night in the kitchen, I burned the rice. In the rice cooker.
Andy fretted over the fact that he’d put off mounting the fire extinguisher in the kitchen. I rolled my eyes at him. “A fluke,” I insisted.
My second try was pasta Carbonaro. I underestimated the size of the pot necessary for the noodles and dumped them in the water too fast. Some flipped out of the pot, fell into the gas burner, and caught on fire.
I put out the fire with an oven mitt and the cat squirter bottle. Then I sheepishly got the fire extinguisher out of the garage.
I retreated from the kitchen for a few days, then returned with a meal I’d made before.
My spicy Thai tofu wasn’t burned or flambéd, but it wasn’t spicy.
“I don’t get it,” I groaned. “I’m using the same recipe! How can it not taste like yours?!”
“It’s fine, honey” Andy assured me.
“You mean it’s EDIBLE,” I corrected him. “Edible is not the same as fine. Especially not when your husband thinks edible includes everything from sheep’s brains to cold jellyfish.”
“I think maybe it’s not quite spicy enough.”
“But I used SO MUCH red curry paste!”
“Yeah, the paste sometimes lacks the proper punch. If it doesn’t taste spicy after simmering for a few minutes, I throw in a jalapeño.”
“Wait. You taste it? Before it’s completely cooked? Isn’t that unsanitary?”
Andy shrugged. “Maybe it’s unsanitary. But it’s necessary.”
“Easy for you to say! You have that cast iron Chinese stomach!” It’s true. The man never throws up. Partially cooked Cantonese cuisine weeded out weak stomachs centuries ago. Andy and I can eat the same questionable restaurant meal and I’m the only one lying on the bathroom floor for the next 24 hours.
“It’s only tofu, honey. Not raw meat.”
“But you taste the meat stuff, too, don’t you?! That’s why your food is so much better! You have an unfair advantage!”
Andy was unimpressed by the light bulb that was practically visible over my head. “All chefs taste as they go.”
I thought about this as I washed the dishes. I didn’t do much tasting when I was baking. Baking is chemistry, really – you carefully measure ingredients, add them in strict order, and heat to transform them. You can’t be tasting a cake halfway through the baking process and adding more sugar.
So if I was going to play to my strengths, I needed a style of cooking that was front loaded like baking. A style where there’s measuring, prepping, browning, and then the food gets shoved in the oven. Food is forgotten until a timer goes off, and then comes out delicious.
You know what that style is?
The slow cooker.
I’d actually gotten Lynn Alley’s The Gourmet Slow Cooker for Andy after my brother-in-law made the Italian pot roast and served it over polenta. The meal was delicious. I wanted it again. In a fit of subtlety, I gave Andy the cookbook and a crock pot from Costco. A few times a year, Andy made the Italian pot roast.
He never tried any other recipes, though. Andy is partial to his pots and wok and gas burners.
The first recipe I tried was the split pea soup. I baked some homemade bread to go with it (i.e., so at least we’d have something edible in case of failure).
Andy said, “Huh. Not bad,” and ate his entire bowl.
Next up, was Tuscan bean soup (and more bread, in case the first success was a fluke). Andy had two bowls.
I branched out with beef burgundy. Andy eyed it with trepidation at first, but then had three helpings.
I tried chicken tarragon next. Only I realized partway through the cooking that tarragon smells like licorice, which I hate. So I replaced the offending tarragon with rosemary (which grows on our patio) and thyme. The chicken turned out well, with only a hint of licorice in the potatoes.
Did you know you can do pinto beans in the slow cooker? Once you have beans, you can do burritos or nachos, easy.
After pinto beans, I made Irish potatoes and plum pork.
We had Mr. Picky for dinner. Mr. Picky is a huge fan of meat and mushrooms. He’s also a huge fan of Andy’s beef stew. I’m pretty sure he wanted to bail once he figured out I’d be cooking.
I made beef burgundy.
He loved it. He said, “This is even better than Andy’s stew!”
I shall glory in those words forever and I shall never let my husband forget them. The slow cooker rocks.
Best of all, I haven’t had to use the fire extinguisher once.