This past Wednesday I learned how to cook.
It wasn’t a big deal, maybe because I had the foundation already. For instance, I can make coffee. And not just any coffee, but instant, when I heat the water in the microwave, or filter, which is more complicated, and even Turkish coffee, which I learned to make as a young man. See, I grew up in Romania and I spent my college years living at home, where my mom and grandma cooked for me, but I displayed a streak of independence from early on and insisted on making my own coffee. In Romania in those years, they didn’t have real coffee in the stores and we used roasted barley and oats instead, but the methodology (if not the taste) was more or less the same. And, since I know how to make coffee, I can make tea, with tea bags. I’m also capable of boiling eggs, scrambling them or frying them sunny side up. And cereal is not a problem for me, except for oatmeal.
At the office during lunch, I watched my colleagues with a skeptical frown as they took turns placing their plastic containers with cooked food brought from home into the company microwaves. I preferred to go out. Most often I would go to a little shop called The Industrial Deli, which was across the street. They had nice sandwiches and my favorite was melted Brie on a warm croissant. When I felt more adventurous, I went to a Giant supermarket that carried sushi and had a well-stocked salad bar. Mixing a salad required some skill, especially when it came to croutons and different low fat dressings, and I quickly acquired that ability. Sometimes, very rarely, I brought my own sandwich from home. That implies that I can use the toaster and, when required, a knife.
So, on Wednesday, we were walking through our neighborhood, my wife and I. We were social distancing, as required, and talking about this and that. We were admiring the budding spring flowers and the clouds in the sky. And then, without an introduction my wife said, “If I contracted the coronavirus, what would you do?” Normally I’m not quick when it comes to surprises, but this time I was on the ball. “I’ll take care of you, no questions asked,” I said full of pride. “You’ll have to wear a bandana,” my wife said. “I will.” “And you’ll have to cook for both of us.” Here, I hesitated a little, and then I responded, “Ah, that’s not a big deal.” That’s when my wife said, “I’ll teach you” and I said “Fine.” As we continued to walk, I thought to myself, “How hard could it be?”
Since I came to this country almost fifty years ago, I’ve seen men stepping forcefully outside of the house, carrying trays of marinated meats and shiny utensils in order to barbecue. I never understood their enthusiasm, but I kept that to myself and, sometimes, when the circumstances required it, I even went outside with them and displayed my full support. Of course, I am aware that most of the world’s famous chefs are men.
In other words, men can cook, and I am a man!
Therefore, that afternoon, after we returned from our walk, I accepted my cooking class. Here is exactly what I did, under the encouraging yet scrutinizing eye of my wife (and I write this without supervision or the assistance of a super-duper cookbook):
First, I took three onions, a carton of chicken broth and a large can of cannelloni beans out of the pantry. I removed three carrots, two celery sticks and a pack of eight chicken thighs out of the refrigerator. From a small jar on the kitchen counter, I grabbed a garlic bulb and separated two cloves. I washed the carrots and cut each in three pieces. I washed the celery sticks and cut off their ends. I peeled the onions and quartered two of them. The third one I chopped and set aside. I chopped the garlic cloves as well and pushed them next to the chopped onion on the cutting board. I took two large pots, one with a matching strainer, out of the cabinet and set them on the stove. Then I unwrapped the chicken thighs and put the vegetables (except the chopped ones) and two pieces of chicken inside the strainer. I added salt and a few peppercorns and poured in the chicken broth. I topped it with water until the level of the liquid seemed right and turned on the fire underneath.
“After it boils and then simmers for about an hour,” my wife said, “our chicken soup will be ready. You’ll remove the strainer, put the carrots and the chicken meat back in the pot and throw the rest away. Then you’ll add more salt, pepper, a little sugar, lemon and spices until you like the taste.”
While the soup was getting ready, I placed four chicken thighs into a glass baking dish, added oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and a few other spices and placed it into the oven at 385 degrees. “Turn them over after twenty minutes,” my wife advised. “In forty minutes they’re done.”
I covered the bottom of the second pot with a thin layer of sunflower oil. My wife said I could have used canola oil, but sunflower oil was what I remembered from years ago back home. I added salt and pepper and placed two chicken thighs inside. I turned on the second burner to medium and waited until the thighs turned slightly brown. Then I took them out and stored them on a separate plate. I added the chopped onion and sautéed it until it grew translucent. Then I added the garlic and a few minutes later put the browned pieces of chicken over the onion bed and poured the drained beans from the can on top. I added a little tomato paste. This was my third dish: “Let’s call it chicken chili,” my wife said. “Add a little water and maybe some white wine.” Not to be outdone, she added, “I’ll roast some new potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and make a little pasta to go with our food.”
You see: she said, “Our food!”
I poured myself a glass of wine and, mindful of the time when I had to go back and check my dishes, I sat down on the sofa in front of the TV. Trump was charmingly explaining how he had sent thousands of facemasks to this ungrateful hospital in New York City and how the masks had disappeared. Or so he thought. The truth is, I didn’t care what he said. The room was filling up with the cozy smell of our cooking and the wine was hitting its spot.
Coronavirus, there I was, ready for you!
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