Friday, December 26, 2008

Home Cooking

Yesterday was the first chance I'd had to share a kitchen with my brother since we put together a cook-out at Dr. Nick's last summer -- and I think it was the first time we EVER, in our entire lives, shared a kitchen together putting out the Christmas meal.

He was interested in cooking from about the age of 5 or so. I didn't pick it up 'til college -- probably as self-defense because I still looooved to eat, and he and my parents were no longer around to feed me.

On separate paths, we both arrived at the same conclusion: that cooking is what makes us happiest. It's therapy. It's expression. I don't think there's anything either of us would rather do.
I always get annoyed when people say they "fancy themselves" writers, as if access to a laptop makes it so (yeah, I could "fancy myself" a surgeon, but no one's handing me a scalpel), so I never, ever say I "fancy myself" a chef.

I'm a cook. An avid cook, a devoted cook...but just a cook.

My brother's an actual chef. He went to school for it. He trained. He apprenticed with a nice Greek family. He also has a Master Baker's Certification (don't try to say that one too fast) -- which is unusual in that he can be both chef and pastry chef -- most culinary pros do one or the other; he's qualified to do both (as anyone who's tasted his desserts can attest).

He was so happy that my Christmas package from home included knives this year -- having relentlessly made fun of me this summer when he asked for the sharpest knife in the house and I sheepishly handed him a steak knife. He told everyone at dinner I'd handed him a rusty shiv I'd crudely sharpened from an old spoon. (I said I wasn't a chef.)

When I first walked into the house, I couldn't quite discern the delicious aroma that greeted me -- even less as the folks kept explaining it as "Pazzoli." Sounded Italian (rhymed with Fazoli), and I couldn't make it out. Finally I asked Brother to spell it. Posole. It's a traditional festive stew that includes hominy in Mexico and New Mexico. Around the kitchen, I could see evidence of an entire night's worth of meticulous prep work.

He'd stopped in Lex on his way to their house and called me for directions to La Favorita (the best taqueria in town) and made a 45 minute detour to get there in driving rain and Christmas Eve traffic just to get the final few ingredients he hadn't already shipped ahead from Austin (and that was a big box). Multiple bags of herbs, peppers, garlic, spices, etc. loaded down the groaning fridge shelves.

My stepdad bragged how they were out in the garage earlier roasting the peppers with a blow-torch. (He would eat a shoe if you barbecued it and didn't tell him -- and my mom would be content to nibble on the laces -- but they try hard to be good sports about the fact that my brother and I were apparently raised by the wolves at Dean & Deluca.)

This was just the meal that was designed to tide us over till dinner...

Which we'd been instructed to get on the table no later than 5 pm. That IS dinner hour in their house. (They met in Florida -- land of the Early Bird Special -- so it seems appropriate.)

What I also know -- from attending many a social gathering hosted by my mother -- is that if she says 5 pm, that means everyone has a plate in one hand and a cold beverage in the other by 5 pm. If she has to greet you in the driveway and stuff a canape through your driver's side window to pull this off, she will. By 3, she was getting antsy when prep didn't seem to be getting underway. By 3:30, when we got started, she was edging into panic and offering the guests bourbon balls.

At first, I was only given simple tasks. "Could you cut the broccoli into florets...?" After I'd demonstrated reasonable proficiency, I got tossed complex assignments, with uncomplicated instruction, "can you make the bechamel for that broccoli?"

And I started to. Before realizing there was no cream, no half & half.

I was lost. He was nonplussed, and handed me a couple cans of condensed milk, describing it as an acceptable Eastern Kentucky variant of cream.

From there, we diverged significantly. His version of bechamel includes eggs, and tempering. Mine's just basic butter, flour, and cream. I made his version... and nearly accidentally served scrambled eggs along the way. And it was still the only dish I really accomplished.

Meanwhile, he busted out carnitas for appetizers (small bites of roasted chicken, on homemade tortillas, with an avocado tomatilla sauce that I still can't stop dreaming about; the sauce had been started the night before and he painstakingly educated me about each component of the flavor profile -- why I was interpreting the acid of the tomatilla as lime on my palate, the finishing note of watermelon rind at the end of a poblano pepper). I still don't remember all the steps that went into the brown butter gravy, but I now know to chill my roux in between before I return it to the pan.

At one point I disappeared from the kitchen and returned in time to hear him joking with my stepdad that in a REAL kitchen, you don't leave without yelling out "bathroom break Chef!" (and the Chef has to yell back "Aye!" before you leave).

I didn't know!

When only the appetizers had been served at 5, my stepdad was (half-kidding) yelling into the kitchen, that we'd better get a move on, "we're losin' customers!" But by 5:30, everyone was seated for a feast.

I was pretty embarrassed that my only contribution to the table was the very simply roasted broccoli, with the bechamel. But I took comfort from the fact that there wasn't a Ritz Cracker or potato chip anywhere near it, and that it in no way resembled anything anyone could call "broccoli casserole."

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