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05 March 2009

cooking again.

cooking again.

I have missed cooking.

Oh, I have been dabbling, slowly stirring scrambled eggs with a touch of cream on low heat, until the yellowy curds pile up like pillows on an unmade bed. Some mornings, I toss the potatoes into salted water and wait long enough that I can run a knife through their centers and pull it out without a hitch. (Sometimes, I imagine the scene from Romeo and Juliet, where Tybalt stabs Mercutio who heaves a little sigh, a gasp of surprise, and then topples over. But that’s only when I am feeling stressed. And remembering fourteen, when I was desperate to figure out how I could marry the impossibly beautiful man who played Romeo in the BBC production.) I glug canola oil into a glass jar, already 1/3 full with flecks of pepper, pinches of salt, a small spoon of sharp mustard, and champagne vinegar. Before I mix it up vigorously, tossing it back and forth over my shoulder like I’m mixing fabulous cocktails in a sleek metal container, I lean the jar under Little Bean’s nose and let her sniff. These days, she opens her mouth and tries to eat it.

So I’m in the kitchen. I’m talking with the Chef, working out what we will eat that day, what we should write, and wandering over for a kiss. And sometimes I’m dancing to Stevie Wonder songs in afternoon sunlight so sudden through the windows that I swoop up the baby from her highchair and twirl her around, past the shelves overstuffed with jars of grains, around the window above the sink, and swimming past the stove with pots simmering. That room is full of joy.

But these past few months, and if I’m being honest — since Little Bean was born — I have not been cooking the way I used to do.

The Chef is at home.

I’m never going to complain about having a chef for a husband. A few months before Little Bean was born, I was driving to an early-morning doctor’s appointment, and I heard two morning DJs with screeching voices and guffawing laughs talking about something. I don’t remember what. The woman suddenly burst out, “Can you imagine? Being married to a chef? He’d make you breakfast every morning. Oh god, I’d never leave the house.” I laughed out loud. Somehow, I had become the object of her envy. And I’d have to say, I agree. It’s good to be married to a chef, particularly mine.

He roasts sweet potatoes for Little Bean at night, so that the soft puree will be cooled for her lips in the morning. He lingers over breakfasts, throwing in a touch of curry powder with the yellow chanterelles, making every bite as surprising as spots of sunlight on the wooden floor in January. When I say we really ought to try eating a few dinners without veal stock sauces or homemade aioli, he puts a plate of pan-seared Dover sole, brown rice with lemongrass, and cumin-roasted carrots before me at the end of a long writing session. He’s the kindest man I know.

But with him at home, no longer in a restaurant kitchen, the days conspire to move him toward the stove. Little Bean needs a diaper change, and then some giggling squiggly time on the bed reading The Giving Tree or Sandra Boynton books. Between Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, emails, and essays, I could sit in front of the computer and never be done. We take a long walk to the coffee shop 30 minutes away, read The New York Times while Little Bean naps in her stroller, and then walk back to the house, our skin tingling with invigoration, and Little Bean giggling at the trees overhead. And suddenly, it’s time to start dinner, and we need to chop vegetables and begin searing the meat before the Bean’s bathtime, or we won’t eat until midnight. He looks at me as I pick up the baby and sling her on my hip, and I look back. “You cook tonight. I really have to tackle that recipe.” And so we are sitting in separate rooms, a shout away from each other, and I am writing, and he is cooking, and Bean is kicking. All is well. Except, another day has passed, and I haven’t stood in front of the stove, again.

I know. I’m sure that some of you would like to kick me right now.

But the thing is? I really love cooking. Eating is fantastic, one of the best parts of being awake. (And as my friend Matthew has said, you get to do it three times a day!) But cooking — the process of thoughts throughout the afternoon of what to make, the slow chopping, the simmering, the dreaming? That’s almost better than eating. Tackling a new recipe and then taping it into my giant black notebook, because I certainly want make that one again — that made me feel more capable than my job ever did. For years, the stove was my sustenance, the place I skipped to after a long day of teaching, or on Sunday afternoons instead of grading papers. In the kitchen, I stop thinking. I breathe in the smells. I sing along with Johnny Cash or Talking Heads, songs I know in my toes instead of learning new ones. I chop sloppy, I sometimes don’t clean up as I go, and I enjoy every damned moment of it. Cooking slows me down. There are times that nothing makes me happier than standing in the kitchen in my bare feet, warm air from the opened oven ruffling my hair, and my fingers feeling that the cake is done. It’s the relaxed time of the hands.

My shoulders are hunched from too much time in front of the computer.

So I don’t know exactly how to negotiate this. Certainly, the Chef needs to keep cooking. We cook side by side, but sometimes he can’t help but give me advice. I listen. He’s right. I learn so much from him. But sometimes I just want to cook, and not worry if I’m doing it well.
We talk about it, over roasted chicken and potato salad, our feet up on the coffee table, the television muted in the commercials of Jeopardy. He wants to teach me, gently, to make food more efficiently. I want to let go and not worry if I’m any good at all. He wants to feed me. I want to feed him. We don’t figure it out in ideas of 140 characters or less.

But we’re in this together. And the food tastes good. He stuffed the chicken with fresh herbs and preserved lemons as I read Madeline to Little Bean, again. I threw together the potato salad, after looking at Molly’s recipe to refresh my mind. They were both on the same plate, the new creation and the cherished dish handed down from one generation to another. We cooked, together. That’s all that really matters.

The process.

seared tofu

Seared Tofu

The Chef hates tofu. It's anathema to him. Or so he says. Because, I just recently found out that he has eaten tofu exactly once. Our friend Daniel, a vegan for decades, seared cubes of tofu to a perfect sizzle, the insides rich and meaty. The Chef looked puzzled at first bite, and then told me, "That's good." From the way he talked about the stuff, I assumed he had eaten plenty of bad tofu, and made his choice. No, that's the only time he's eaten it. And he liked it.
"Why do you hate it, then?"
"It just seems weird."
Hm. I'll convince him, yet.

I love tofu. I adore the crisp crust that develops with a good sear and the soft custardy insides that heat around the tongue. I love how clean I feel when I eat it. I love how quickly I can gobble all that protein and not feel too full.

So the other day, the Chef was gone all afternoon on a catering gig. And I cooked. Tofu.
Little Bean looked confused when I stood in front of the stove. That told me something.
Mama needs to cook more often.

I will say, however, that the Chef's lessons and skills have seeped into me. After watching him sear and braise meat, and throw together sauces that leave my toes curled for how good they taste, I guessed at this method of cooking tofu. I loved it. Dark with oyster sauce and rice wine vinegar mingled, soft and warm, this tofu was so satisfying that I could have this every day for lunch (with a side of sauteed spinach).

I'll help the Chef to love it yet.

16 ounces extra-firm tofu
3 tablespoons oyster sauce (make sure it's gf)
3 tablespoons fish sauce (again, gf)
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 nub ginger, freshly grated
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
5 tablespoons dark sesame oil
kosher salt and cracked black pepper

Preparing the tofu. Put the block of tofu on a cutting board, propped up to slope down toward the sink. (or, you could just use a plate.) Top it with a sturdy plate. Weigh the plate down with a couple of your favorite textbooks or heavy tomes. Allow the water to seep out of the tofu for at least an hour. Drain off any remaining water. This will keep the tofu firm when cooking, instead of watery.

Making the marinade.
Combine the oyster sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic, 3 tablespoons of the sesame oil, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir them up well. (These measurements are only guesses. Use your senses for your own taste.)

Marinating the tofu. Cut the tofu into large cubes, about 1 inch each. Toss the cubes of tofu into the marinade. Coat the cubes well and allow the tofu to marinate for about an hour.

Preparing to cook. Preheat the oven to 450°. Pull out your cast iron skillet or a large sauté pan. Bring it to high heat.

Cooking the tofu. Pour in the remaining sesame oil. When the oil runs around the pan and starts to smoke a bit, put the tofu cubes into the hot oil. Be careful. The oil will sizzle. Stand back and creep forward when the danger has passed. Place all the tofu cubes in the skillet. Cook about 4 minutes, or until the bottom of the tofu cubes have browned. Turn the cubes, carefully and brown the other side.

Pour any remaining marinade over the top of the tofu. Slide the skillet into the oven and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the tofu is piping hot.

Serve immediately.

Feeds 2.


At 11:23 PM, Blogger Chef said...

I adore tofu and I'm a chef who eats a shit-ton of meat. But it wasn't always so. My first taste of tofu was in the form of a jiggling off-white cube unceremoniously displayed in a brown plastic tub on the salad bar at my college dining hall. It tasted like nothing, if nothing tasted like cardboard. Luckily for me, I pushed past that experience, but please, for the love of god, think of it as a blank slate... a blank slate crying out for flavor, such as Shauna describes in this recipe.

At 5:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My honey is just like the chef--a tofu denier for no apparent reason! I was slower coming to it, but now I love it and eat it 2-3 times per week. Baked in a glaze, like this, is one of the best ways to have it, but I also love me a good tofu scramble or even tofu omelet in the morning.

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Zoomie said...

I know what you mean about the comforts of actually cooking what we eat. Even when I'm not feeling well, I feel better for cooking. My Beloved would like to cook for me at those times, and sometimes I let him, but sometimes it's therapeutic just to chop and saute, simmer and sniff.

At 6:53 AM, Blogger Erin Swing said...

Yay! In praise of Tofu. I love tofu just as much as I love meat; I do live in Porkopolis (Cincinnati). I also worked at a Chinese restaurant for 10 years and learned the many delicious ways they worked tofu. While in Thai cookery school, I also learned of a new way of preparing tofu - to stain the outside with fresh tumeric, then stir fry in wok over medium heat until crispy on the outside, followed by flavorings and rest of goodies. Tofu is so versatile, cheap, and keeps in the fridge longer than fresh meats. I have turned my meat-loving Greek husband on to tofu, thankfully.


At 7:06 AM, Blogger Nita Van Zandt said...

This sounds wonderful! I'll try it soon.

I understand about wanting to cook your way, in spite of having a fabulous chef there. Somehow, somewhere, could/would he offer a cooking class or be a parttime personal chef for someone or have people in to demo for--very small to try it and perhaps more as opportunities emerge?

I'd love to have a chef show up once a week to cook dinner! But I'm far, far away . . .

At 7:40 AM, Blogger Allison said...

When our boy was a baby I'd put baby bite sized cubes of tofu on his tray and he had a lot of fun with the texture. He had no issue with the taste either, as he'd gobble it right up.

And regarding the difference in doing the things you used to do now that you're a momma, it is a big adjustment, even when your husband is more often available, as yours is.

My husband worked from home when our boy was young and I often felt a bit stuck because he had plenty of opportunities to choose what he'd do and it wasn't as easy for me to do anything else besides care for the baby. Being the primary care giver to a very small person makes you essential in the *most* primal way to someone whose very well being depends on your willingness to put many of your other interests aside, but it requires a new level of patience and perspective. The stove and the food will be there later, but this ephemeral time with your Bean will pass in a flash and will never return again. Try if you can to adjust your expectations and relish (relish!) every single moment, because it's passing even now.

At 7:48 AM, Blogger jill elise said...

I never liked tofu until I had it Japanese style, silken and smooth. My favorite tofu recipe is to coat small squares in cornstarch and quick fry them, then serve them with a soy broth wish an egg. Oh yum. I feel out of place when someone's cooking for me. My chef only gets to cook once in a while.

I'm giving away a paperbook copy of your book on my blog this weekend!

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Find yourself a g/f mapo tofu recipe and see if that doesn't change his mind right up. And if it's the texture he doesn't like, (and although not the traditional way) fry up or saute your tofu first.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Stephanie in Idaho said...

No comment about the food today... because I just HAVE to say that my 10 year old daughter STILL loves Madeline!

She reads it to her niece, and it is the cutest thing ever... I just love the quiet poetry that is that book.

At 8:37 AM, Blogger Miranda said...

As the love in your live has expanded, I think your writing has, too. It seems especially rich lately. Nice.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Cara Hall said...

I used to be mystified by tofu, also, but now I love it. It's definitely all in the preparation. We made a shepherd's pie once with mashed tofu in mushroom gravy, and I think that's when I was completely won over.

I know what you mean about the cooking thing, too. I don't know how many times we've had a blowout over picking things out of the garden in which I say, can I have a corner for myself then? Sheesh!

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Gina Perry said...

This sounds delicious. I have a love/hate relationship with tofu - love to eat, hate to cook it when I've had much better in restaurants. I will try this though - the technique sounds like it would produce something special!

At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yum! this sounds delicious. your posts are so gorgeous!

[sidenote: didn't tybalt stab mercutio..not the other way around??]

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I'm not gf, but I love food - and I love, love, love your voice.

Like this little snippet:

"I adore the crisp crust that develops with a good sear and the soft custardy insides that heat around the tongue. I love how clean I feel when I eat it...

So the other day, the Chef was gone all afternoon on a catering gig. And I cooked. Tofu. Little Bean looked confused when I stood in front of the stove. That told me something. Mama needs to cook more often."

I've been reading you for a year and I'll keep coming back.

Can't wait to try this recipe.

All the best,

Monica in Vancouver

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I lived in Atlanta, food critic friend, Christiane Lauterbach (amazing woman and writer) took me to a "vegetarian Chinese" restaurant off Buford Highway where every single item on the menu was made of tofu.

It was hilarious because they shaped the food to look like the original thing. I think we laughed the loudest at the "whole fried fish" made of tofu. They did a pretty good job approximating the flavors of the original, although it was completely surreal.

Glad you are cooking again. (and I hope Little Bean still likes my books! ;-)

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Shauna, I totally know what you mean about cooking. I look forward to my Sunday afternoons when I know I will crank up the radio and the oven and spend hours cooking. I have a typical NY apartment with thismuch counter space, so I break out my four folding snack tables to make an extended counter which always makes guests laugh. I get the fan ready for the uber-sensitive smoke alarm, make a trip to one of the stocked Astoria bodegas for fruits and vegetables and I cook away. It is many times the highlight of my Sunday.

You are blessed that the Chef is there to cook for you, but I do hope you sometimes take over that kitchen for your own sake. ;-)


At 2:56 PM, Blogger chililime said...

Tofu is divine, a welcome guest in many dishes. It's a shame how unappreciated it has been. Poor, tofu. It offers itself willingly to be pureed, sauteed, and seared, embracing any seasoning or flavor. It yields to your will, whatever your imagination or heart's desire. It offers iself in loving surrender to you with protein and texture, and takes the place of eggs well for those who cannot tolerate them in scrambles and soft, billowy loaves of bread. Tofu is a most dear, beloved friend. Continue experimenting with tofu. The possibilities are endless, a joy to behold for any palette that dips in take the adventure.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Rina said...

I just love reading your writing.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger GS said...

Welcome back! The stove missed you. Thanks so much for sharing a vegan dish and spruiking the wonders of tofu. I can't get enough of the stuff.

At 8:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The BBC Romeo, Patrick Ryecart? Not Zeffirelli's Romeo, in the 1968 film, Leonard Whiting? He was impossibly beautiful, as was his Juliet, Olivia Hussey. And Michael York was Tybalt, with his hair dyed black.

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Erin said...

thanks for a, reminding me to whip up some tofu again and b,how to properly prep it, this has always been the tricky part of me!

At 11:53 PM, Blogger katrinka said...

Hey Shauna, have you tried nigari tofu? I love it because it's so firm, you don't have to bother with pressing it. I get mine at Central Market. I am always looking for a new riff on a marinade - thanks for the recipe!

At 8:35 AM, Blogger amy said...

Don't you love getting to say, "He's the kindest man I know"? I love saying it too. Kindness is the best. There is a song by David Wilcox--Kindness--that captures it perfectly.

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for these thoughts about cooking. I feel the same way. Sometimes I catch my husband watching me while I'm cooking, and I look up and say, "what?" And he says, "I just love watching you cook. You're so present with what you're doing." There are few things that relax me as much as cooking and baking.

And to Renee: yes to the 1968 film!

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Anna said...

How I wish I could still eat tofu. I used to freeze it, and then cut it up and fry it. Freezing it gave it a meatier texture. Stir fried with a little oyster sauce, tamari, green beans and chilies was my favorite way to eat it, over a little rice. Have a lovely afternoon.

At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love tofu, but it took a while to get there. My fave is crispy tofu.

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Meg said...

Well, I don't have much to say about the cooking right now (this weather does not put me in a tofu kind of mood). But I do have some reading suggestions for a little girl.

"The Princess Knight," by Cornelia Funke (my girl can recite it, she loves it so much). The Skippy John Jones books (which I don't like, myself, but kids adore for their hallucinogenic derangement, and if you do accents while reading aloud, certainly benefit from) and of course, "How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?" Mockingbird Books in Green Lake is a good stop, even if you then check it out from the library based on their suggestions.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Katie said...

Whenever I'm having an overwhelmed, stressed day all I need is to read a post on your blog and I'm reminded of all the joys in life!

I also adore tofu and have a not-so-tofu-adoring partner. I'll have to try your recipe on him since he likes it better when it's crispy on the outside!

At 11:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ONE BIG TIP: Sesame oil is expensive, and you only need a little to flavor the whole dish. Try cutting it to 1 tbsp sesame and 4 tbsp other oils. (My asian in-laws clued me in to this one, and for cooking, it really saves a TON of sesame oil). For salad dressings and the like, use only sesame oil.

It's sort of the same rule of thumb for when you'd use extra virgin olive oil vs. cheaper stuff. If you'd use cheaper stuff (frying, some sauteeing, etc), then use a little sesame to season and cheaper oil for the rest.

But I wanted to say that this looks amazingly good! I'm going to try this later ^_^

At 9:47 PM, Blogger JoAnne Markov said...

Shauna - Congratulations on the Martha Stewart Living bit! It was awesome to see some GF recipes in her magazine, and even more cool to see who wrote to introduce them!

At 8:36 PM, Blogger jenA said...

oh haha i feel for you! I know you wish you could be cookin more. and I feel bad it's still part winter up there! the bluebonnets are early here in Texas and I'm panicking because it means early heat! and possibly no bluebonnets for my wedding in may :( boo.
I'm not much for tofu either, sorry to say, even if yours sounds good.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never had tofu, have heard a lot of negative and positive things. I am very interested in trying it now. The pictures on this post make tofu look soo good! Will have to give it a try sometime in the next week. Maybe this weekend!

At 2:34 PM, Blogger Ginny the Sock Monkey said...

Hmmm I always have struggled with cooking tofu, because of the moisture, so thanks for the tips on weighing it down. I'm definitely going to try that the next time I fry some for my dinner! :)

At 10:01 AM, Anonymous Stef said...

Looks great - I'll have to try this marinade :) I recently discovered that using a panini press or George Foreman grill, etc work great for cooking tofu! It automatically squeezes out some of the water without having to wait...of course not squeezing water out ahead of time will affect concentration of your marinade...but, it's GREAT in a time crunch and provides what is, to me, the perfect texture!


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