Don’t cook the hell out of food

Though the Thanksgiving feast was a success taken straight from the Cuisine at Home cover, it still feels like such a production to carry out. Since we cannot agree on what to prepare, we usually make everything each wants. The result is enough food for an army, and leftovers that would last until Christmas (if they didn’t go bad first).

This year’s meal had a small twist to the usual. It included a turkey basted with butter and wine (with nothing stuffed on the inside and it tasted absolutely no different), mashed potatoes with brown butter, sweet potatoes with a cranberry/orange sauce, sautéed Swiss chard with butternut squash and apples. Plus some cornbread and a home-made apple pie (still enough to serve four families). Though the meal required some planning, given we travelled out of town for the holiday, it only took me a 2-3 hours to prepare. Everyone liked everything except the Swiss chard; nonetheless, I was able to use the lovely chard as a centerpiece on our kitchen island and as a tactical maneuver to get my way the rest of the weekend (“Luke, if you don’t eat your PB&J, you have to eat the leftover plate of Swiss chard.” That was an easy sell and got a few chuckles along the way). The beauty of this year’s meal was the beautiful backdrop outside dining room in which we ate –the snow capped mountains of Sun Valley (thanks to our friends who shared their lovely place with us).

But back to last night’s dinner. I was thrilled when Rob offered to cook because my motivation was deficient. And even more thrilled when I saw the Donna Hay cookbook open (nothing against chicken stir fry but it’s nice to have some variety).

While Rob cooked, Luke and I sat in front of the fireplace checking out Jamie Oliver’s new Atari cooking game and watching Ina Garten videos, strategically planning our next dinner (looks to be chicken piccata) while doing research for my new book. Yes, I completely steered clear of the kitchen so as not to interfere with Rob’s culinary creation and/or piss him off, whichever might come first.

About an hour later, we sat down to a lovely dish of baked chicken on sweet potato rosti (with a side of baked broccoli and carrots). In three words, it was magnificent. The only downside was that Rob looked as if he were about to have a nervous break-down when we took the first bite of our meal. I turned to him and said, “What the heck is wrong with you?” (I was seriously worried about him). His only comment was a resound, “You stress me out.” I rebutted with, “But I wasn’t even near the kitchen tonight. I stayed away on purpose.” To which he then responded, “It doesn’t matter. You get upset if dinner isn’t ready until 8,” (well yes, that is true) and “you are a good cook and that puts added pressure on me. You stress me out.” (I decided not to take his remarks personally.)

I have created more than my fair share of flops, many of which he has sampled, so I don’t see why he feels pressured to produce an exquisite meal. But the good news? After he’d finished dinner and admitted just how wonderful it tasted, he began to relax. It was then that he admitted a new revelation. “I learned something about myself tonight. One, you stress me out.” (Yes, I believe you mentioned that a few times already). “Two, I don’t need to cook the hell out of things.”

Apparently, his one bout with food poisoning over 15 years ago in New Zealand scarred him even more than I realized. If a recipe suggests a dish cook for 15 minutes, Rob admitted that he intentionally keeps it in the stove or on the grill an extra five minutes “just to be safe.” This, it seems, has been the culprit of some rather dry, burnt meals (hum…not the ESPN diversion like I’d thought). At least he finally admitted his paranoia, “That time I got food poisoning? (Yes, you have mentioned this no less than 1000x since we met.) “The chicken had been on the set of a photo shoot all day. Then after I cooked it that night, I let it sit in my refrigerator for 8 days before I ate the leftovers.”

Well no wonder he got sick! It may have taken 15 years and another stressful meal, but alas he has learned that a person doesn’t HAVE to cook meat or seafood to death to avoid botulism. Not to mention, there might be a lot more flavor in the process.

Lesson learned. “Don’t cook the hell out of food.” In fact, cook it a little shorter than you might think, check for doneness, and keep cooking if it’s not ready just yet. This is a far better strategy than overcooking with the guarantee of a meal that clearly tastes like crap.

While you’re at it…please learn to relax. Yes, dinner before bedtime would be nice, but a botched meal is not the end of the world.

Melinda Hinson