At the same time, I missed traveling to places near and far, discovering what’s on their plates. So travel I would, from my small kitchen in the NoMa neighborhood of D.C.
The thing is, I’m no trained chef. “Follows directions” never got checked on report cards. Mistakes happen. No sweat or tears, yet. But there has been blood (knives are frenemies), and when I roasted potatoes last weekend, flames shot out of the oven like a Kiss concert.
So even with familiar foods, it’s trial-and error. For things I’ve never made, even when by myself and no one is watching, the pressure is on. I want to get this right. Screw up jambon persillé, and there may be no second chance.
An October night in France began with me shivving myself with an oyster knife (paper towels and chablis helped heal that wound). Then, oeufs en meurette, red wine-poached eggs with bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions. A rustic dish, but with a lot happening in the preparation and on the palate. Neither egg-poaching nor kitchen multitasking is a strength, but aided by YouTube recipe clips, it turned out well. Despite my wound, it was France in all her glory. I was proud.
In March, Xi’an Famous Foods, a favorite New York fast-casual western Chinese chain, experienced anti-Asian violence. I bought their cookbook to send support with biang-biang noodles. Here, I relearned the obvious lesson: Read the recipe first! What failure meant: The noodles needed prepping the day before, and I loudly used words I gave up for Lent and had Cheerios for dinner.
But that next night — simultaneously clueless and having the courage of my convictions — I hand-ripped noodles (yeah, I did!), matched with “spicy and tingly beef.” Noodles with what the restaurant calls Mt. Qi Pork a week later were even better.
Last September, a year to the day since visiting Barcelona and with eyes bigger than my stomach, I decided — while in Whole Foods Market — on a four-course Spanish night, for me and me alone. Gazpacho, I’ve made it before: assemble, blend, chill. Cod omelet: fish chunks and eggs, check. Pan con tomate, rub halved-tomatoes on bread. Ham and cheese croquettes. Some assembly required, fry for a few minutes. Fairly simple. This was a lot — eventually my stomach became bigger than my eyes — but not hard.
Tastes, smells and sounds are transporting. Shutting off the news, hovering over the stove and having playlists meant escaping the “Do I need pants today?” stress we’ve all encountered.
French nights of croque monsieurs, rognons de veau and so much cheese, paired with burgundies and Johnny Hallyday-heavy playlists, put me at Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris. German schweinshaxe and David Hasselhoff music (of course!), Roman pastas paired with Morricone and Pavarotti, Colombian ajiaco and Shakira teleported me to those places for a night. Away from all of … this.
Experiments great, disastrous, always entertaining — let’s be honest, if you share culinary successes on social media, you have to share the burned bagels and chicken you dropped on the floor — meant telling myself: “Slow down, one thing at a time. You’ve got this.”
In a year without much joy, these became favorite nights of this lost year. For dinners at home that were overwhelmingly solo affairs, that’s saying something.
Now, there’s real optimism. I’m vaccinated. Reunions are happening, and masks are coming off. We can eat indoors, and travel is on the horizon. We will have Paris again. I have baseball tickets!
But we’re not out of the woods yet, and I’m hungry for more.
The quenelles de brochet dumplings Bill Buford enthusiastically details in “Dirt” (another great pandemic diversion) still seem out of reach. So this weekend, it’s Nigeria, via my kitchen, and asun, a spicy goat stew I had during a 2015 visit. Goat is an ingredient I’ve never used. I’m intimidated. I can’t wait.
And if all goes wrong, there’s always a bowl of cereal.
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