Top | First Person

The natural

(article, Erika Kleinman)

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I’ve always been more of a “mixer” than a cook. Most of my concoctions involved canned cream-of-something soup, frozen veggies, and chicken breasts from a bag. Sometimes I was lucky enough to have a roommate or significant other who could cook. They would occasionally try to show me things, such as how to caramelize onions or the best way to roast vegetables, but I only watched politely and waited until they finished, so I could eat it.

It wasn’t that I was disinterested in the process. On the contrary, I had enormous respect for people who could cook, and I often wished I had the same skills. In my perception, cooking was akin to painting or being a surgeon: you had to be a natural. The rare times I did cook, I spent an hour looking for recipes online that had ingredients I had on hand. (“Shoot, can’t use that one, don’t have any oregano.”) Or I would rush out to buy whatever ingredient I was missing, such as a can of water chestnuts. I thought that if I left an ingredient out or substituted another, I would screw up the whole endeavor.

In short, I didn’t have cooking confidence.

I wouldn’t have guessed that in a year’s time, I would be making up my own recipes with fresh food from the farmers' market. If you’d told me I’d be making my own pie crusts with fat from a homemade chicken broth — and that it would actually be good — I would have laughed hysterically. Even more unbelievable is the fact that this change in cooking habits was inspired by someone who is no longer alive, and whom I only met once.

I am the nanny for two boys, ages 5 and 8. Their mom died of ovarian cancer before I began working with them. I met her a few weeks before she died, after I’d been interviewed by her husband. I’d never talked with someone who was dying before, at least not in such final stages. It surprised me that she was so alert and articulate. 

At one point, she asked me if there was anything that I wouldn’t like to do as part of my job. “Well,” I said carefully, “I’d rather not cook if I’m only going to be here for three hours a day, simply because I think spending time with the kids is more important.”  

Her face fell. Her disappointment was so obvious that I worried I’d blown the interview.  

“Of course, I’d cook for them in the summer, when I’d be with them full-time,” I said, my voice trailing off.

She smiled. “Well, I guess not everyone loves cooking as much as I do.” 

Once I started working, I noticed that the kids were fascinated with everything to do with cooking, and that the oldest knew where everything was, from whisks to potholders to vanilla extract.  

“You really know this kitchen, don’t you?” I said to him.

He shrugged. “Mom used to let us help her cook all the time.”  

I suddenly remembered something I’d read a while back, about kids being comforted by food during times of grieving, especially familiar food. My charges often talked about their mother’s cooking, and how good it was. 

In the summer, when I was nannying full-time, I asked my boss for his wife’s recipes, so I could cook for the kids. He gave me a book of recipes from the preschool the oldest had attended, and a box of index cards that contained some of her personal favorites. I leafed through some of them, and noticed that she had written notes on many in her small, neat writing.

She had written whether or not she liked them; “Great!” or “good” appeared frequently. A few recipes had notes like, “We tried it, and it didn’t turn out right.” One pork tenderloin recipe with caramelized onions had the happy-looking note “So yummy! Daddy’s and the kids’ favorite!” 

Occasionally, she noted substitutions — leeks instead of celery, making her own curry mixture, or replacing half of the white flour with whole wheat. I thought she must have been some kind of culinary rock star. The idea of actively experimenting with a recipe seemed nothing short of daring.

Meanwhile, I had developed a newfound interest in food politics. I had just read the immensely readable The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which examines the disassociation most Americans have from their food, a relationship that has been undermined by the food industry. Inspired by the book, five friends and I started a group blog, The Ethicurean, which is dedicated to eating sustainable, organic, local, and ethically raised food.

This was all fine and dandy, and a lot of fun, but I didn’t know how to cook the food I was buying. I searched frantically for recipes that included the purchases I’d made at the farmers' market, and I shied away from ingredients that were too unfamiliar.

Inspired by the handwritten notes in the cookbook, I started substituting ingredients when cooking at home. Over time, I began to realize that recipes are flexible; indeed, that many of them can use improvement. For instance, two cloves of garlic is not enough for any meal, and you can almost always throw in a pepper.

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 caption="Fresh vegetables are the foundation of a winning meal." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/MargaretAnne"]

I found myself becoming more adventurous. Instead of buying the standard fare at the farmers' markets, I tried heirloom vegetables and produce that seemed interesting. I talked to the farmers about how to cook things like purple kohlrabi, garlic scapes, and leg of lamb. Instead of seeing recipes as formulas that must be followed, I began viewing recipes as sketches to potential works of art.

Over the winter break, I had the boys for a full day. We went to a local produce farm in the morning and bought food for lunch that day. The kids picked out sweet potatoes, broccoli, and tofu. When we got home, I flipped through the index cards for inspiration. Miraculously, there was a recipe for roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli, drizzled with olive oil. I decided to roast the tofu as well, with a little garlic.

The kids helped peel the potatoes, while I cut up the broccoli and tofu. I’ve found that most kids love to help in the kitchen. They love to measure things for you, or grind the pepper, or see what a raw sweet potato tastes like. “It tastes kinda like a carrot,” said the youngest.

I admit I was a bit worried about how the kids would like the meal. With their dad’s busy schedule, they tend to eat things like canned ravioli and Pop-Tarts. I sampled some of the tofu and was surprised to find that it tasted pretty good; the flavors blended well together.  

The kids loved it. I watched in shock as they each had seconds. When their dad came home for lunch, he eyed the meal suspiciously. “You have to try it, Dad! It is so yummy!” said the oldest.

“Yeah, and we cooked it,” said the youngest. When he had barely taken a bite, the kids asked excitedly, “Well, do you like it?”  

He nodded, looking surprised. “Actually, I like it a lot.”  

I told him about going to the farm and throwing the meal together. “Wow,” he said. “You’re a natural.”

“Thanks,” I said. A natural? No such thing. But I knew what he meant: I have cooking confidence.

p(bio). Erika Kleinman is a nanny, a speech-language pathology student at the University of Texas in Austin, and a dynamo in the kitchen.

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