Friday, January 23, 2009

Other People's Kitchens

There are few things as satisfying as cooking for other people. It's an amazing feeling to know that someone you care about is truly enjoying and appreciating something you created from raw ingredients. However, there is also something to be said for being the RECIPIENT of others' cooking.

There is a calming quality to sitting in a friend's warm kitchen, the warmth from the stove or oven creating fog on the windows in the winter. The smell of delicious food is permeating the air, and your only job is to make conversation, pour the wine, occasionally hand something to the cook, and pop copious cheese and crackers into your mouth. It's an amazing way to spend an evening of quality time with a friend, and it allows you to share a meal without spending too much money or enduring the lack of intimacy in a crowded restaurant.

The old saying about too many cooks in the kitchen can often prove true, so sitting on my butt and chatting it up is often my favorite way to be a cook's plus one; it saves them from cooking alone while allowing me to stay out of the way. Another perk of being in this position is the opportunity to observe another cook's process. It gives you perspective on your own methods, and often provides more than a few brilliant ideas about how to make your way around a kitchen.

I recently filled this role for one of the most amazing cooks I know, my friend T. Her food is always delicious, and perhaps the most impressive of the many impressive things about her is that she usually works out the recipe for whatever she's cooking in her head as she goes along. T has an unrivaled understanding of food and what flavors compliment each other in a finished product. She claims her last batch of chili was awful; coming from a place of experience with her cooking, I don't believe her for a second.

It was time for another round of chili, and this time T invited me to try it out. Our adventure began right after work last Thursday, when we met for hot chocolate and some last-minute grocery shopping. As a side note, I encourage everyone to try the hot chocolate at City Bakery ( on 18th St., providing you enjoy beverages that are basically melted chocolate in a cup. I advocate sharing a small cup with someone, or purchasing the shot-sized cup instead. Also, the marshmallows cost extra. Everyone should be forewarned about this get-rich-quick scheme they have in the works.

After we had procured our hot chocolate and were clutching it in our gloved hands, T and I waddled around the outskirts of Union Square in our puffy winter coats and debated the merits of picking up groceries at Whole Foods versus Trader Joe's. Of course, Trader Joe's eventually won out. Despite comparatively bigger lines in a much smaller space, the selection and prices at Trader Joe's basically always lead to a TJ's victory. It's certainly also helpful that next door to Trader Joe's on 14th St. is the Trader Joe's Wine Shop. Because T was cooking, it was my job to procure the wine. Being young and not at all picky, Three Buck Chuck ( was just the ticket.

After waiting in the extreme-as-usual line, T and I exited with the essentials (and some Havarti cheese with dill for crackers) and hopped on the 4/5 to take us to the R train. After arriving at her stop in Queens, we ducked into an organic food grocery store for a few forgotten items and were finally on our way to Chili Heaven.

My job was to chop the onion and peppers, but an intense fear of cutting myself (a terrible handicap for someone who loves to cook, I know) always forces me to do such things far more slowly than an Iron Chef might. T, already on par with an Iron Chef, was able to do the onion herself in less time than it took me to do a single green pepper. She also lit a candle, which apparently helps with the reflex of tears when onions are involved. Chopping a single onion has never bothered me to that extent, but it was certainly a good trick.

T always has the best food gadgets, and this included her chopping knife. An extravagant and rather expensive gift from a relative, the thing cuts pretty much anything like it was air. Although I was impressed, the aforementioned fear of finger amputation will probably always keep me from owning something that allows for such hasty, accurate chopping.

T added ingredients as we both picked at the crackers and cheese. We chatted. We poured the wine. The chili simmered behind us. I rinsed and drained the black beans; T added them to the mixture.

Our friend L arrived, and it was time to chow down and watch The Office. As we each made our way to the living room with a glass of cheap wine, some gluten-free corn bread and a heaping bowl of T's delicious chili, I had one of those amazing moments of feeling happy and cozy and satisfied and connected to the people around me. I'll blame the fact that I had a second bowl on my desire to hold on to such a feeling of food-induced peace and happiness.

So while cooking for oneself certainly has merit (thanks are due to z and mwr for the amazing brie cheese and crescent roll THING I made for myself last night, sharing food as a passive observer is also an important exercise for foodies. Gifts of food are also heartily appreciated, especially when they're lovingly made by the person who presents them to you. For my birthday, my friend A sent me a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread he had baked himself in his breadmaker. He packaged it up in ziploc in a large cardboard box and shipped it out from Ohio, and I still remember how delicious and fresh it tasted every time I tell the story (which is often). It's hard to explain how much more it meant to me to get that loaf of bread instead of something that could be purchased in a store.

So, every once awhile, it's important to be selfish and simply say "thank you" when someone else slaves over a hot stove or mixing bowl and presents you with the product of his or her own creative expression. Just don't forget to bring the wine.

1 comment:

mwr said...

I'm glad that you liked the brie thing!

This is also a very good post, but I'm a sentimentalist. It made me think that we should have a SPF cooking evening once a month. Once a week will probably never happen, but if we planned for like the second week of every month I'll bet we could do it! Anyone else game?