October 7, 2010
The Chefs in the Family
I am not a cook. I could barely boil an egg twenty years ago. I still can't prepare a roast. I don't claim to be a chef but the family has to eat so I take short cuts. My short cuts consist of carefully reading recipes, each and every time I cook a meal in my home.
My American grandmother functions the same way. She has prepared the same delicious spaghetti with meatballs and every single time, for the past sixty years she looks up the recipe somewhere between her Best House Wives magazines, her clippings from Reader's Digest and her Julia Child cookbook. She then measures with teaspoons and table spoons and measuring cups. She will never cook by approximation. She will rarely add a spice or two.
For years, and with good will, she followed the recipes of Batmangli's Food for Life, a book on Persian Cuisine. I have the book, a classic in every Iranian diaspora family's house, written in English of course, with the simplified step by step instructions.
I think my breakthrough experience was in June 2000 when I was 8 months pregnant and my youngest brother and I spent the summer in Boston. He took summer school there. I got a craving for Indian food. My brother suggested he cook at home. I looked at him startled. Where would we start? I didn't know my pepper from my salt and Indian cuisine boasts a medley of spices. We have eaten Indian all our lives because we had an Indian cook in Dubai but we never learned how to cook it from the top of our heads. He said he knew a very simple Beef Vindaloo recipe from the Madhur Jaffery cookbook. We bought her book which I still love to this day, and use for many of my dinner parties. The instructions are simplified. I will always remember that decisive day when my brother encouraged me to buy the book and taught me how to cook Indian.
My brothers are amateur chefs. It is their talent. When they lived together in Philadelphia, their bachelor pad had the best pantry you could imagine. They hosted feasts for their friends, usually preceded by cooking challenges Iron Chef style. Once they created a monocolored menu which consisted of an appetizer, main course and dessert which all had to be white, orange or purple!
The older of the two brothers is a Todd English type of cook. While he can make any Middle Eastern stew, he will also take the classic French and Italian dishes and give them a twist like Todd English does at his flagship restaurant Olives in Charlestown, Massachusetts. On TV, Todd English looks like a giant in the kitchen. My own brother is himself a very tall guy. They have the same respect for fine foods and ingredients. Sometimes just an olive oil will be made a big issue by either one of them. I can safely claim that my brother's cepe risotto or duck a l'Orange are close in taste to English, if he had the cooking assistants and the stoves that Todd has at Olives.
My younger brother adopted the lobster risotto by Todd English. However, his cooking body language and the cool way he cooks and entertains remind me more of the British "Naked Chef", Jamie Oliver. My brother cooks from the top of his head and can actually assemble a meal with whatever is left in the fridge and pantry. He always adds a zest of this or he sprinkles the meal with a last handful of greens or parmesan cheese in the same way the Naked Chef does and the meal is ready to be devoured.
Just the other day, I listened closely to the way he described the simple preparation of oatmeal for breakfast. He recommended flax seed and cinnamon and perhaps honey and then he remembered: "even better than honey are the frozen berries. Add them frozen to the oatmeal as it simmers and they will melt into the porridge substance." I was listening so I could prepare it for my husband but his descriptions sounded yummy even to a person who associates oatmeal to a hot, yet tasteless, breakfast before a freezing ski trip.
Master entertainers, and in the tradition of her parents, are my cousin and her husband who have the best parties and the best food. I drool just remembering the "cotelettes" by my Amou Bahram, her father. Cotelettes may sound French but they are an Iranianized version of the French counterpart. My Khaleh Claudia will rarely cook but if she does what an Iranian celebration! The dinner parties at my cousins have the succulent guacamole dips, the huge platter of French cheeses. How does she know how to choose? I have to "enee meeny miny mo" when I visit the cheese section at the grocery store. The main meal is laden buffet style on the table, a guargantuesque feast. We are fortunate she doesn't bake - but I have had her scones and clotted cream for tea.....
I live surrounded by cooks. My husband's brothers are superb cooks. They always kindly give me hints about what to add to a salad or how to marinate lamb. Two of their wives are the finest Afghan cooks I have met.
One thing is for sure. I know where the good food is. I sometimes consider myself lucky not to be one of those good cooks lest the temptations during my protein diets be harder to keep.