November 2, 2003

"Where's your meat?"

That what Nessa asked when I described my dinner of oven-roasted fingerling potatoes and freshly-shucked sweet corn with with rosemary and garlic. Very simply? She was not impressed by my meal or by the fact that I had pulled the together based only one what I happened to have in the fridge. She wanted to know where the beef was. Or chicken. Or pork. Or lamb. It goes far to give you an idea of the sort of table I was raised around. Here's a hint: we weren't vegetarians and we lived in Minnesota. In fact, there's a deeply held belief that my father would have spontaneously combusted if he didn't get complete doses of meat and potatoes on his plate. But I think that's largely circumstantial.

The thing is, I love meat and I almost always order great red slabs of it when we go out. Furthermore, I order it rare because one degree above medium is an abomination of the meat and, truth be told, you don't really like the meat you're eating if you order it well-done. It completely destroys the taste. Don't believe me, a light-weight female chef? Read Anothony Bourdain for a start. Although I had such a picky aversion to anything green, yellow, or orange that grew underground, on a vine, or in a pod when I was a kid, I did manage to embrace all things meat.

The Chicken Dance

Chicken is completely wasted as a menu item and I'll never order it in a restaurant. I don't care if the chicken came out in white tie, presented me with a bottle of the finest Amarone, and then begged me to eat it with a thyme and lemon butter crust, it's not going in my mouth. It's not that I'm afraid of it, it's just that if I'm going to eat it, I'd rather make it at home. I don't know why -- it's a thing I have. It might be that most of the ways I've seen chicken prepared at a restaurant are easy for me to duplicate at home, so why bother paying for it? To paraphrase my mother-in-law: "I like to order something that makes the chef work a bit."

However, that can't be the only reason, because much of what I see on a menu I know how to do in my own kitchen. I guess I just feel it's boring to order chicken. Not that chicken itself is boring, mind you. I mean, I will go through days and weeks where I crave it, but it's not usually when I'm at a restaurant. And my cravings are usually based on a certain way of doing it at home -- like my mother-in-law's grilled rosemary and garlic chicken breasts. Man, I'll never forget those. I had them on my first visit to Mathra's parents' place in D.C. We were newly engaged and discussing our wedding plans with them. Everyone was nervous and on their best behavior. The taste of those chicken breasts -- cold and for lunch with a side of grilled vegetables, mustard and Humboldt Fog chêvre -- is the taste of our engagement. Not to get too soppy or anything, but it was also the taste of the future of my relationship with my in-laws. About a year later, my mother-in-law sent us a Calphalon grill pan for our wedding shower and tucked inside the box were some sprigs of rosemary and a recipe card for those particular chicken breasts. Another way I like chicken at home is what my own mother used to do to it: whole and oven-roasted. Nothing fancy and great with mashed potatoes -- comfort food at its level best. On occasion, I do it that way, but even when I get the cats to help (under the table and unbeknownst to Mathra) it's still a lot of fowl for two people.

Meat Grades

I loved Shake'n Bake pork chops -- crispy bits and seasonings on the outside, perfectly juicy and succulent on the inside. They went divinely with buttered corn, potatoes, or artichokes -- the only vegetables I unclenched my jaw for -- and left wonderful crunchy bits on the plate that I'd stamp up with my fingers. Above the Shake'n Bake, I favored lamb chops and lamb shish kabobs -- marinated and speared with great chunks of onion and button mushrooms. Lamb is still the single-most crucial reason why I could never become a vegetarian.

But I would put everything aside for spareribs. They had to be pork and they weren't barbecued because they really don't need that slathering of sauce. Salt, pepper, and broiled for just over an hour was all it took to make these little beauties carnivorous perfection. It was the sorrow of my life when I got braces and couldn't eat them for four years. Finally, and not to be too cliché, but my mother's meatloaf was the best around, provided, of course, that she didn't get carried away and start sticking pieces of green pepper in places it shouldn't go. And though I'm a chef and should espouse everything homemade, none of this fancy made-from-scratch tomato sauce with the loaf -- it's gotta be Heinz ketchup (or "catsup" as my dad calls it) all the way. I still can't make my meatloaf come out the way hers did.

Recently, and probably because of this piece, I got on a kick and started making a bunch of meat dishes. I quizzed my mom on the ribs recipe and served them up accompanied by roasted white corn and tomatoes. While I'm totally a sauce person, these naked ribs let the pure flavor of pork shine through; no other garnish was needed. I also made pan-seared pork chops with a pomegranate (in season now!), fennel, and cilantro salsa. Tuscan steak was another new thing to hit our table. Steak barely done -- apparently in Tuscany it's served still blue -- and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice on a bed of arugula. Fresh corn also accompanied this dish.

I've never been a veal person. My mother made some breaded things once, but our subsequent scrabbling at our throats, loud retchings, and death masks were enough to convince her never to make that mistake again. It was because of that vivid memory that I never ate it as an adult -- never ordered it at a restaurant, never even picked it up at the grocery store. I tried to convince myself I was being very high-minded about inhumane conditions and cute little baby cows suckling their mothers when it really just came down to that childhood memory. Unable to keep that "high-mindedness" at culinary school, I ended up eating pounds of veal. To my surprise, it was quite good but I still don't know if I can bring myself to order it from a menu.

Do It, the Pigeon

Ah, Bert. Anyway, my husband's parents were in town for the first time since we moved here, and as a celebration of our upcoming thirtieth (gasp!) birthdays, they took us to Chez Panisse. And not just Chez Panisse. It was the dining room of Chez Panisse. My god, was it an incredible night. I could go on at extreme lengths about the entire menu, but what is germane to the topic of this entry is that I had domesticated pigeon for the first time. Or, "squab" as we of the culinaria call it. Although it's in the poultry family, it's not like duck, goose or even chicken. What it is most like is the king of all meat: lamb. It was simply divine and I will order it again and again and again! The grilled squab was drizzled with a garlic sauce that was reminiscent of Chinese cuisine -- even though the entire meal was well grounded in Tuscany, including the wine that my father-in-law selected and brought for the night -- and served on a bed of braised autumnal greens, garnished with lightly fried eggplant and yellow squash. It was sacrificial lamb heaven.

A few months ago, I analyzed all my bath and body products with rather interesting results, so here's another thing to ponder:

Most of our nicknames for our two cats have to do with food. Peas in a Pod, Meatloaf, Cutlet, Dumpling, Puff Pastry, Little Shrimp, Turkey Loaf, Rump Roast. And one of them is even named for a food: Poppadum. In conclusion, if we ever adopt another fuzzy baby, I'm partial to naming it "Portabello."

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