When Michael’s parents were visiting at the beginning of the month, the question of when he started cooking was brought up and for a good twenty minutes he and his parents debated over the exact moment, and the conclusions were anything but firm. If you asked me when I started cooking in earnest, I’d have to date it from the moment I sunk my teeth into a gooey, delicious panini Michael made for me that contained what was to become one of my favorite foods: roasted red peppers.
He found the sandwich on the Food Network website–I believe it was a Wolfgang Puck recipe–and I remember going to the Whole Foods in Wynnewood to procure the ingredients: red peppers, prosciutto di Parma (my first taste of what would also become one of my favorite foods), smoked gouda, and sourdough bread, sliced on-site in the bakery department. To any sandwich fanatic this might seem to be a non-event, but keep in mind that this was 2003: Panera Bread was still emerging as a fast casual brand, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a panini on a major restaurant chain menu. Up until that point grilled cheese sandwiches grossed me out (clearly, my younger palate was too advanced for the likes of processed cheese singles), and to taste the heavenly combination of pepper, meat and cheese, fused together with heat and a little olive oil, was a true personal revelation. Following that I became obsessed with red peppers, begging Michael to make them for me and finally taking a risk and roasting my own to make a light appetizer in anticipation of my best friend’s arrival one chilly winter weekend. Seeing how simple it was to do did not diminish the high of making a dish I was proud of, and following my move into my studio apartment across the parking lot from Michael’s for senior year, we started cooking up a storm on weekends, holidays–really anytime we felt like having a great meal.
From then onwards, cooking has become one of those tasks that I have slowly but surely immersed myself into. Initially I was a essentially acting like a prep chef: peeling garlic, carrots and the like, while occassionally taking over the pepper roasting controls if Michael needed to focus on something else. I would spend hours pored over cookbooks, absorbing not only dishes but the elements that went into a kind of cuisine. The more I read and ate, the more confident I became, and when fate/circumstance determined I would be at home for an undetermined period of time, cooking (and baking focaccia) became a balm to my troubled mindset: I may not have been successful in finding a job that day but I did make one hell of a salsa/loaf of bread/soup or prepare a spectacular mise en place waiting for Michael to take over upon arriving home. As much fun as it is to watch Michael work his magic in the kitchen, I had learned that it was even more soul-satisfying to jump into the fray and get cooking myself.
I know I’m not alone in this sentiment: I follow the blogs and Twitters of countless men and women who feel the same way, and the community of home cooks that has emerged–a fusion of old-school work ethic with modern social media–is one of the the most interesting, vibrant and inspiring that I’ve encountered in the years I’ve followed and researched the food industry. This omission is what I truly take issue with in Michael Pollan’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine that home cooking is dying out, because if he had, his thesis would have more holes in it than a well-aged Swiss cheese.
But no matter–I was ready to write a screed that threw around terms like “intellectual laziness” and “lousy research,” but what good would that do? Instead, I want to tell you to keep cooking. Don’t let one voice discourage you–learn on your own terms, and you’ll come into your culinary fearlessness. The sandwiches pictured above were made with leftovers of our big tapas dinner from Friday night, and while there isn’t much to them, they serve as a testament to how far I’ve come in conquering my kitchen-related trepidation.
Just keep telling yourself un poco a poco. Little by little. It’s time very well-spent–even if you’re trying to learn a new technique in order to make a gourmet sandwich.