“You wanna get dinner tomorrow?”, I said.
“I’ll come to your place if you cook something special”, she said.
At which point, had I learnt anything from the long string of pathetic failures and painful mistakes that have made up most of my life so far, I would have said: “You really sure? what about Korean. or BBQ restaurant? I know this great yakiniku in Shinjuku… let’s go there!”
Of course that’s not what I said.
I said “OK”, and mostly hoped that the word “special” at the end of her sentence didn’t carry too much meaning and had just been thrown in for good measure…
I mean, I can cook something.
Cooking something special would be a different matter though.
It may be tempting to jump to conclusions and assume that my home hosts ten times more electronic equipment than cooking utensils and that I couldn’t fry an egg to save my life…
And mostly, this is exact.
Well, the equipment part is true. I must regretfully admit that our kitchen is pretty pathetically under-equipped, mostly for lack of shopping time.
When I say ‘our’, I might as well say my kitchen and my roommate’s microwave, for that’s the only appliance he is even remotely acquainted with.
On the other hand: I can cook.
No: really, I can cook.
Granted: most of what I cook usually revolves around pasta, rice or potatoes as base ingredients, but that’s just because I happen to like them, and the simplicity of the foundation doesn’t preclude elaborate culinary explorations.
When it comes to what people might call “special” level of cooking, I still can do a few things… You know… All these secret family recipes whispered to my ear by a dying auntie… the tricks of the trade proudly bestowed upon me as a child by the family cook whenever I would escape the vigilance of the governante and sneak out of cricket lesson to seek refuge from the preceptor in the castle’s kitchen… all that…
Hold on, maybe I got the memories somewhat confused. That last part might be little lord fauntleroy actually, not me. Damn drugs: never can tell.
There is a problem, though, in that my cultural food heritage mostly consists of things like rougays, nems, samosas, curries (coconut curry… [drool]) and, overall, all sorts of Indian and East Asian food mixed with African spices.
Not that I ever grew up in India. or China. or anywhere nearby East-Asia for that matter. Didn’t set a foot there until way later in life.
OK. Timeout. I can feel the waves of confusion building up and about to crash against the pristine coast of clarity and higher understanding that this blog stands for. Lemme explain:
See, there are places in the world where most locals eat Indian and South-East Asian food on a daily basis, other than India and South-East Asia (no, I’m not talking about Birmingham and South Kensington either).
Mostly it is due to the fact that these people travel, emigrate to new countries and end up living in every corners of the world far from their home country. And their cuisine often mix up with the local cuisine.
Europeans did that too, mind you.
Actually, Europeans could even be credited with reviving the trend, back in the 1500’s and ever since. I think they called it something like ‘colonization’. It worked a bit like the famous eponymous computer game, minus the A.I., plus the raping and torturing.
Along with the word of Jesus Christ Savior and hefty quantities of firearms, they did bring their own conception of refined cooking wherever they went. It just didn’t catch that well.
Would you believe it: when faced with a choice between pineapple coconut curry with rice, or burgundy beef fondue and boiled lamb with mint, locals often end up veering toward the former.
Blame it on Western cooking’s heavy reliance on refrigerated ingredients freshly plucked from the orchard or purchased from a local creamery. Maybe also the fact that you need more equipment than a chemistry lab to tackle the mere appetizer… Possibly even, let’s face it, the very questionable value of platypus meat as a beef substitute… All these factors might have played ever so subtly against the popularity of Western cooking and account for its comparatively low rate of penetration on remote tropical islands.
End of cultural aside.
Conclusion: in that place me happened to be born, them was more into curry and chop suey than boiled rabbits and escargots.
And if you ask me to cook something close to my heart and my abilities, you’re more likely to see me whip out the exotic spices, than grab my boots to go snail hunting for dinner (People: these things you are eating are basically slugs with a shell, for crying out loud. yuk).
And that would not be such a big deal, except here.
In Japan, introducing yourself as European automatically implies that you strut around your house with one of these ridiculous Smurf hat and spend your day perfecting a new roquefort sauce to go with that braised quail you just made. Never mind the fact that, for most people born north of the Channel, the apex in term of culinary experience is a lump of toxic fish on a bunch of sliced potatoes macerated in carcinogenic saturated fat. When the Japanese ask for “European Cuisine”, we all know which country they are thinking of, and it ain’t Wales.
It surely ain’t Punjab either.
Truth be told, I don’t think I would have cared that much about such cultural considerations and would have been more than happy to unleash the power of the yellow coconut curry on my unsuspecting audience in any other occasion.
However, much to my regret, my body still hasn’t forgiven me for the excessive excesses of that past week-end: it seems like I might have finally managed to permanently eradicate any trace of a lining in what used to be my stomach, as well as in small yet highly critical spots inside my mouth, by means that shall not be detailed publicly here, so as to spare the children’s innocence. and also because I don’t quite remember all of it.
My physical condition making it particularly painful to merely think about spicy food, let alone eat it, was the deciding factor in the preparation of a homey dinner à la française.
And while this cuisine might be somewhat out of my realm of expertise, my field experience combined with a sharp mind that has made my reputation all the way to Antananarivo and back, have taught me a few tricks that I shall hereby share with you. Helped by these and a fair amount of improvisational skill, I reckon even the most inept cook can become the Martha Stewart of home-cooked date dinners (minus the jail time, preferably).
First, it is of utmost importance to divert attention from the actual meal by providing a few quintessential props, such as: bouquet of roses (or similarly romantic flowers), scented candles and nice bottle of wine (don’t worry if you do not have the slightest idea how to tell wine from vinegar, just buy the most expensive you can afford. except if the most expensive you can afford still doesn’t come in a glass bottle with a non-plastic cork. in which case you might wanna consider fruit juice and rum).
For aforementioned health reasons, and doubly so considering the particular history of that past week-end, wine or any alcoholic beverage had been crossed-out from the start (fair warning had been given to my guest on my condition and my intent to keep the evening essentially alcohol-free as far as I was concerned).
As for candles and flowers, I shall simply refer you to Woody Allen’s brilliantly awful rebuttal to that flower guy who unsuccessfully tries to sell him roses for his date (Hannah and her Sisters, I think thought, but Google doesn’t seem to think so)…
Which takes us to step two: the cooking itself.
My strategy there relies essentially on two elements: 1) sugar 2) mushrooms.
I sense most of you faithful reader are yearning for an explanation (Ed. Note: the omission of a plural mark in the previous sentence is not an oversight, merely an estimate taking in account a rough word count of the preceding paragraphs).
Well, it’s easy, really:
1) Everybody likes sugar, especially girls. That dish we call desert and usually bake around the sugar is quite superfluous, really. For you could serve sugar completely pure, with a light aroma, an enjoyable consistency and a nice color: people would still devour it like it’s some kind of culinary masterpiece (Ed. Note: I am informed right this second that this is already done and people call it “candy”. My bad. Just goes to prove my point).
For my project, I had picked Crema Catalana (approximately means “Catalan Cream” in Catalan. surprising as it is…), which is pretty much the same as Crême Brulée, except they eat it in Catalonia and probably renamed it to avoid paying royalties to that Mr. Brulée guy. If you’re ever in the vicinity of Barcelona or any other northern spanish city equipped with your average tourist goods supermarket, I highly recommend picking up the “Crema Catalana Set”, as it adds the invaluable color de los locales to your cooking (more on that later).
2) French cuisine is all about one thing, really: sauce… and meat… Two things… Sauce and meat… And a bunch of fried vegetables… Well anyway… French is composed of such things as: fried meat and vegetables with a sauce on top and loads of salt and pepper all over it. The secret to a great sauce is blindingly simple: just chop and throw everything that’s been lingering in your fridge or shelves for a while and doesn’t smell excessively bad when you take it out. Add onions, garlic (lots) and a bunch of herbs. Add a cup of cream and stir for a while until it starts loosing all shape, color and consistency. Voilà! you got a tasty sauce that will go great with about any kind of animal coming in portions small enough to fit in a pan with a lump of butter and garlic (more).
What about the champignons, you ask?
Well, the mushrooms, my friend, are what will tip the balance from a mere culinary exploration in random hopefully non poisonous, mostly edible cooking, into an authentic French chef masterpiece of culinary delight. Think about it, mushroom is the French ingredient par excellence, it is more than a mere ingredient to the average food-loving Frenchman. It is an erotically charged (the shape, people, the shape!), delicately textured gem, hidden by mother nature in the most inaccessible recesses of these wonderful centennial forests (or crammed on a layer of organic fertilizer in an industrial basement the size of a football field, as the case may be for your mushrooms… but anyway).
One last thing. The French chefs, that bloody cooking hat of theirs, what do you think it’s modeled after? mmmn?
OK, seriously: mushrooms are ideal because they have absolutely no taste (therefore less likely to screw up the difficult balance of mostly insipid, essentially salty, taste that must be reached by your sauce), they are dirt easy to cut in a stack of neat little slices (especially with one of them Japanese samurai kitchen knife they got here), which, provided you clean out the blood and spare fingertips before you date arrives, won’t fail to produce a very good Grande Finale effect, when you pour them confidently in your brewing mixture, shortly before serving.
BTW, if your dinner has a somewhat romantic character and/or one or both of you still have a full use of their sense of smell, remove the garlic part from the recipe above.
I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that the mushroom strategy was a resounding success (well, at any rate, she did not immediately collapse in pain while holding her chest and puking blood, at least).
However, while I can vouch for mushrooms and their value as an infaillible additive to any successful sauce, I must warn you that room deodorizer perfume-oil concentrate does not make a great additive to a Catalan cream.
Now before you start imagining all kind of bad things about my cooking skills (and the subsequent lack of value of the advices presented here), let me add quickly: there was nothing voluntary in the addition of that last ingredient. Neither as a substitute for a lacking ingredient or as a culinary experiment. Trust me.
The whole thing looks like a small viol on an electrical plug that heats up and vaporize the strong perfume in any room you put it in. It smells bad enough that is usually kept plugged to the wall of my heavy-smoker-of-a-roommate’s bedroom. For reason unknown that day, it happened to be plugged just above the stove whence I decided, mid-cooking session, to yank it and store away.
Must I really go into the details of what happened next?
Suffice it to say that I was convinced enough that the one drop that ended up on my hand during the unplugging process was the lone result of a brusk movement, and that none of the remaining potent liquid had escaped the viol and ended up anywhere near the pot and its edible content.
I guess in retrospect I should be grateful for the fact it wasn’t an insecticide vaporizer… Yea, I probably should… Though in that, I also missed a sure chance to run into this year’s Darwin awards finals.
More than anything (and not only for sanitary reasons), I am grateful that my lovely guest, awesome as she is, had remembered that the past week-end was connected with a commemoration of sorts and brought an edible candle holder to mark the occasion.
This, plus the fact the creams had not reached their optimal consistency by the end of the meal, and were therefore unfit for the useless yet highly essential (for coolness factor) step that consists in caramelizing a layer of brown sugar on top of them with a special fire-heated tool (hence, the Crema Catalan Set you must absolutely buy if you ever make a trip there) made us postpone the cream-eating process to the next morning… Where my naturally developped acute senses and sharp mind, aided by a repairing sleep, were able to detect reasonably quickly (well, somewhere between the end of the first one and the beginning of the second one) an odd chemical aftertaste that could not possibly be explained by the sole incompetence of the cook (well. at least, not the incompetence of the cooking).
And just in case you felt compelled to ask: tentative plans have already been made for a make up yellow curry dinner (sometime next month when my, now repeatedly abused, digestive system will have fully recovered).