KITCHENS ARE full of personality. They sparkle with eccentricities, fill houses with beautiful aromas and create havoc among those wishing to survive in them. Bathrooms are for bathing, bedrooms are for bedding, and kitchens are for fighting. They are members of the family.
We take kitchens on. In the shower, we devise a plan for breakfast. Out of the house for lunch, we momentarily cheat on them. At work, we think of the ensuing assault for dinner.
It's all because personality is the most important ingredient in cooking. Personality is the reason the French can't make Italian food, and the reason Italians won't try to make French food. Personality is that magic and elusive element that can make or break a meal.
None of technology's gifts seem to help. Food processing machines all of a sudden decide to chop instead of dice, microwave ovens open garage doors or shut off pacemakers, and dishwashers simply spot glasses and clog up sinks. Our counters look like runways at Kennedy Airport; our floors feel like Velcro.
But we need them. Like kids need braces, like NBC needs Carson, like kitties need litter, we need them.
My friend Ross needed his kitchen a while back. He had made the mistake of inviting some people over for a housewarming party. Nice enough idea, except for the fact that he hadn't cleared it with his kitchen first.
The guests were due at 7, and I volunteered to come over at about 5 to help get things moving. Ross said no, he wanted to do everythink on his own. They plan, as he told it to me over the phone, was to have salad, then individual cornish game hens for all eight guests. A little brown rice next to some string beans and Pepperidge Farm cake for dessert. Evidently, he didn't want to push his luck with baking.
I rang the bell at 6:15, determined to at least set the table. Ross answered the door at 6:25 with a face like Janet Leigh's in the shower, from "Psycho." I got a feeling things had run afoul. Ross pointed to the kitchen without saying a word. It could have looked better. It couldn't have looked worse.
Ross's kitchen had fought back. His new oven's 350 degrees was comparable to his old one's 475. The hens were burnt to crisps. The rice appeared to be part of a denture cream sauce, and the string beans lay at the bottom of the pan like fallen willow tree branches. The wine that had been set out to breathe was now exhaling all over the floor with the lemon and butter sauce. The $12 bottle had been knocked over by a frantic elbow.
Ross hated his kitchen, and his kitchen hated him. The tile floor had become a battleground of wills. Ross walked around slamming cabinets and throwing lettuce. Ross found out the hard way about the influence of personality in the kitchen.
Once in a while, someone comes along who meets kitchens on his own terms. My grandfather was perfect in a kitchen. I talk to plants; Grandpa talked to kitchens. And it worked. Everything had its own place. There were never a lot of gadgets, and there were never a lot of people. He would always set something out for everyone to munch on while he staged the real stuff on the stove. He was the Pavarotti of pasta.
The process would begin early. Coffee for grandma was the slow start the kitchen needed after a night alone and at peace. By noon, fresh vegetables were being cut up on clear counters, and sauces were just starting to simmer. There was never any rushing.It was therapeutic, and gratifying. Grandpa knew it. The kitchen felt it.
We never got to hear breaking bottles or curses at electric stove elements. There was never any food thrown or a door slammed.
The result was that everything was ready at the set time; the sauces were always served at that ideal, but evasive temperature -- hot, but not boiling.
My mother is my grandfather's daughter. When I lived at home, she would come into the den where my dad and I were watching TV and ask if we wanted a "little snack." Ten minutes later, the buffet for a royal wedding would approach the room.
M y dad and I are learning. We watch our tempers and watch our counters. We have learned the advantages of loving our kitchen and keeping our psyches in line. Ross has learned, too. He plans to get married this year. GRANDPA'S REAL SAUCE (Enough for 1 1/2 pounds pasta) 2 onions chopped Olive oil for sauteeing 8 medium Italian plum tomatoes (fresh, of course), seeded 2 celery stalks, cut on diagonal 2 green peppers, finely chopped 3 diced carrots 1 garlic clove, mashed 1 tablespoon sugar 1 teaspoon salt Healthy dose of freshly ground pepper
Saute onions slowly in olive oil until transparent. In the meantime, broil tomatoes, letting skin darken and blister. Pel tomatoes and add to pot along with remaining ingredients. Cook over low heat, covered, an hour or two. DAD'S PASTA PRIMAVERA (Enough for 1 hungry Italian or 4 non-Italians) 4 slices prosciutto, julienned 1/4 pound mushrooms, quartered 1/2 pound raw shellfish (crab, shrimp, scallops, etc.), diced 6 asparagus tips, blanched and cut on the diagonal 1 cup cooked peas Olive oil 1 pound pasta, cooked 1 stick butter 2/3 cup heavy cream Salt to taste Freshly ground pepper 2 cups parmesan
Saute prosciutto, mushrooms, shellfish, asparagus tips and peas in olive oil. Place cooked pasta (really hot) in a pot with butter. Toss until butter melts. Add heavy cream and heat over low flame until cream is thickened. Mix in seafood mixture and add salt, pepper and parmesan. Heat briefly, tossing, to melt cheese.