By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
I am not a good cook. Never have been. But I yearn to be great. I watch the Food Network with great enthusiasm. I imagine myself twirling around in the kitchen, dazzling my friends with my expertise, amazing them with my magnificent meals. If watching TV magically translated into an actual skill, I would be stir-frying, sauteing and braising everything to a turn. I’ve observed so many baking episodes that I should be rolling out fondant and spinning sugar roses on a daily basis. But alas, my intellectual understanding of food and my ability to produce edible meals somehow are at odds. In all fairness, I’ve not killed anyone yet but as you will read, I’ve come darn close.
I should have known that cooking was not going to be my strong suit back in 1972, when I was living in my first apartment. At the time I was dating a lawyer who took me to very nice restaurants. Back in those days (I think it was the Paleozoic era), men always picked up the bill. So occasionally, the woman was expected to host a home-cooked meal. It was a great system. After a couple of months I just couldn’t mooch one more meal from this man, so I worked up the courage to host him for dinner. I decided on a Mexican theme. I decorated with colorful flowers and planned out the menu; I think I even threw a red sash around my waist thinking it would add a certain je ne sais quoi to the evening. As if a red sash was going to make up for canned tamales. Yep – the prep for my main course consisted of me reaching into the tool drawer, pulling out an old screw-type can opener, and dumping the tamales in a pan. I think I may have served canned Mexican rice too. Shortly after we finished eating this tour-de-force of can opening, my date asked if I had an Alka-Seltzer. I did not. So he suggested (rather kindly as I think back on it) that we go out for an after dinner drink at the local pub. Only he didn’t have a drink – he ordered club soda. Not surprisingly, I never saw him again. And I was so naive that it was years later before it dawned on me I had caused him to suffer from heart burn, indigestion and God only knows what other type of gastrointestinal disorder.
Fast-forward 43 years to last month when I experienced the Triple Crown of cooking disasters. First, we were invited to a pot luck where I volunteered to bring a chicken dish. I consulted my Ina Garten cookbook, How Easy Is That?, because I was definitely looking for easy. I selected the Lemon Chicken that required boneless chicken breasts with the skin left on. Not wanting to cut open an artery while de-boning a chicken breast, I purchased de-boned chicken breasts from our local gourmet market for approximately the price of a Porsche. The recipe says to simply put the chicken in the lemon sauce and bake it, whereupon the skin is supposed to “crisp up”. As the time approached for us to leave, I peeked in the oven. No crisping. I panicked and turned up the heat. Still nothing. Finally, we had to leave for the party so I pulled the dish out of the oven. The end result looked like islands of fat floating in lemons. I’ve seen better looking skin in a nursing home. I secretly told everyone that someone else brought that horrid chicken dish.
Next I decided to bake my husband’s favorite dessert for his birthday – Pineapple Upside Down cake. He is on a restricted-fat diet so I found a recipe that used applesauce and club soda as substitutes for anything that actually tastes good. When the baking time was up I took it out of the oven only to discover that it resembled a yellow Frisbee. Actually, that comparison might be insulting to the Frisbee. One of my good friends, who is a fabulous cook, told me that next time I should make a full-fat version and just serve a smaller piece. Hmmmm…a smaller piece of cake. Not something usually in my wheelhouse.
The third disaster occurred last weekend when I tried to make up for the birthday cake disaster by fixing an angel food cake. In fact, I went a step further and found Ms. Garten’s Lemon Angel Food cake recipe. Perfect! My husband loves lemons and the cake is naturally fat-free. The recipe couldn’t have been further from my canned tamales in terms of effort. The flour, sugar and salt had to be sifted FIVE times. Finally – it was in the oven and I hovered over it like a mongoose watching a snake. It rose beautifully. When I took it out of the oven it was high and crispy (if only my chicken skin had looked that good). I inverted it on the counter and went into my office to relax while it cooled. Ten minutes later my husband walked in and said “Honey, I think your cake fell”. I assured him that an angel food cake is supposed to be upside down while it cools. To which he replied, “No, it actually has fallen.” I raced into the kitchen. Sure enough, my angel food cake was a steaming heap of molten mess, having made a huge splat when it hit the counter. Pure unadulterated pride kept me from taking a picture of it. Instead, I did what any reasonable person would do – I threw it in the garbage and poured myself a glass of wine.
I’m going to start watching The Wine Network. All that’s necessary for success is to select a bottle of wine, open and pour. Now, how easy is that?