When I was a kid, I was the pickiest eater in the world. The. World. If it was a vegetable (with the notable exceptions of corn, carrots, and…mashed potatoes are a vegetable, right?), I didn’t want to know about it. Turnips? What? No. Brussels sprouts? Are you KIDDING me? Cabbage? Stinky. Tomatoes? Good in sauce, ketchup and soup, but on their own? *hurl* My pickiness was not limited to vegetables, either. If it came out of a can (which constituted much of my mother’s cooking—who had the time or money to feed five kids fresh veggies on a blue-collar budget?), I was instinctively skeptical. Unless, of course, it was the aforementioned corn or carrots, or Campbell’s tomato soup, which I still jones for to this day. What’s up with the meat in soup? Why is it often suspect, occasionally spongy? I always thought Spaghetti-Os had (maybe still have; I don’t know, it’s been years since I ate them) a weird, cloying sweetness and almost gummy quality to the sauce that I couldn’t get around. For years, my only concept of Chinese food was La Choy, which makes Chinese food that may swing American but tastes like…wait…you know, I don’t even remember the taste (thankfully, I must have blocked it), but the smell always reminded me of the high school gym after a class was over…you know, the smell of unwashed socks and unanswered promises. Canned spinach? I’m still not entirely convinced that “canned spinach” isn’t something that’s strained out of the Arthur Kill and spends its time masquerading as a foodstuff…waiting…watching. Once, my mother got me to try asparagus. Fresh asparagus, that there was some sort of special on at the grocery store. All she did was boil it for a few minutes, season it with a little salt and pepper, and bring it to the table. It was delicious; it was crisp and tasted of green and springtime and unslimy wholesomeness. I was a nine-year-old asparagus convert. The next time she served asparagus I piled it on my plate and took a big bite, expecting it to deliver that same effect. Instead, I got a pile of tinny sludge in my mouth; she’d made canned asparagus and didn’t tell me. It was a bait and switch. I cried.
Later, I realized, it’s not that I was picky because I didn’t want to eat *food*, it’s that I was picky because I didn’t want to eat *crappy* food. This generally holds true despite the fact that I still have a soft spot in my heart for those weird, frozen, pre-formed oval-shaped “veal” patties. Does anyone remember those? I’m sure I wouldn’t have to wherewithal to actually ingest one today, but for some reason I remember them fondly, even though I know they’re basically the veal version of pressed, frozen, oval-shaped, breaded hot dogs.
I didn’t enter into my love affair with food easily. There are all these fables about people who love food, and how they’ve always been in front of a stove, and Bobby Flay made his mother pudding when he was four and he was hooked forever. That? Was not me. Certainly, my mother—who is a very good cook in her own right (tendencies towards cans and vegetal baits-and-switches notwithstanding), but super-straightforward and non-adventurous in her cuisine—taught me the basics of spaghetti sauce-making and pot roast-roasting as part of my after-school duties. But once I grew up? Meh, I wanted nothing to do with it. I harbored some erroneous idea that cooking carried an inherent gender bias and represented servility for a woman (though not for a man, why is that?), and my (now ex-) husband was a good cook. Why bother? His social status wouldn’t be harmed by his cooking endeavors, and I didn’t mind doing the cleaning-up. It worked just fine. Until, of course, my husband and I started working different shifts. I went from having dinner cooked for me pretty regularly to being on my own, since the ex- didn’t like to cook a full meal if I weren’t right there to enjoy it at that exact moment (hello, people…leftovers?). So, when faced with the choice of heating up a seemingly endless parade of Campbell’s Tomato Soup which, despite my enduring affection, becomes tiresome after a few days, OR fending for myself in the kitchen, I began to fend. Eventually.
Anyway, to try and keep a long story from continuing on that much longer…I love food. I want to talk about it, I want to write about it, I want to eat it. Food has so much more power than just serving as the fuel that propels our bodies; it has emotional impact, cultural impact, and can bring out the best or the worst in a person. (And if you don’t believe me, watch how people behave when they go out to dinner and how they treat their waiter, particularly if their meal gets messed up.) I am in love with the process of preparing food. I love to cook it, I love to have my hands in it. I love to pull a butternut squash apart and turn something practically rock-hard and virtually inedible into crispy-puffy-savory squares, or a silky sauce. I love to pickle things, I love to caramelize things (and I will knock you down for caramelized shallots, Mom), I love to imbue foods with rich and smoky flavors that speak to the depths of your soul. I love the power of food to bring people together in a family ritual, or bridge a social gap through the process of breaking bread that had not been bridged before. It’s a kind of magic, it’s the chemistry of magic, and it keeps me centered and happy like no other thing. When I broke my leg, the one thing I said, consistently, when I was asked what I couldn’t wait to do again, was cook (as it is exceedingly difficult to prepare a full meal when you are forbidden to put any weight at all on one leg, though I did occasionally prop myself up on a cushion and chairs and demand to sauté something…and I digress).
Once I was in the kitchen and embraced it as an adult aspect of life, I realized what cooking was really about. It wasn’t just about being the ‘girl’ in the relationship and accepting a gender-code according to your household duties. Cooking is about…maturity. Freedom. The ability to take care of yourself at the most basic level, while defining your own sensibilities. This is why I missed it so much when I was in a cast; I wanted to be able to care for myself even a little. It’s a faux feminist ideal that gives women the idea that they don’t have to know how to cook as a point of rebellion; all it does is weaken your capacity for self-sufficiency. There’s no practicality in crippling yourself to prove a poorly-conceived point; it’s like cutting off your own feet because you don’t like wearing high heels. Learn how to cook so you can feed yourself, learn how to sew so you can put buttons back on your shirt, and learn how to change a tire so you can drive out of a bad spot. Enjoy your capability. It’s your life—do you REALLY want to live it according to the quirks of fate and the whims of others?
And so, with my mature sense of foodie-ism, I present one of my favorite recipes. No, I didn’t write it, but I was happy to take it from the pages of Bon Appetit. Presenting: Pomodori al Forno. In Technicolor! Seriously…om nom nom. (As an aside, there’s something really right about my first food post involving tomatoes. Those who want to get the joke will probably get the joke. Moving on.)
Pomodori al Forno
1 cups (or more) olive oil, divided
2 pounds plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise, seeded
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh Italian parsley
Aged goat cheese (such as Bûcheron)
1 baguette, thinly sliced crosswise, toasted
Preheat oven to 250°F. Pour 1/2 cup oil into 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Arrange tomatoes in dish, cut side up. Drizzle with remaining 1/2 cup oil. Sprinkle with oregano, sugar, and salt. (OK, sooooo…I used nowhere near as much oil, thyme instead of oregano, and I roasted the garlic in with it, which I’ve done every time I’ve made this dish, to the tune of zero complaints. And I forgot to seed the tomatoes, but whatever, it’s all good.)
Nom, phase one
Bake 1 hour. Using tongs, turn tomatoes over.
Nom, phase two
Bake 1 hour longer. Turn tomatoes over again. Bake until deep red and very tender, transferring tomatoes to plate when soft (time will vary, depending on ripeness of tomatoes), about 15 to 45 minutes longer.
Nom nom, nearing the conclusion...
Layer tomatoes in medium bowl, sprinkling garlic and parsley over each layer; reserve oil in baking dish. Drizzle tomatoes with reserved oil, adding more if necessary to cover. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours. DO AHEAD Cover; chill up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Tune in tomorrow to see it finished in all of its parsleyriffic glory.
Serve with aged goat cheese and toasted baguette slices (and dive in ecstatically).
And here is the finished, parsleytized, nommy product:
…in the dish…
Oh, to be a decorative retro Pyrex dish and have such a filling as this...
…and on my plate.
Though for some reason, my camera kept wanting to focus in the Peruvian purple potatoes behind it, so sorry if it’s a little blurry. But yes, crepes to the left, purple potatoes to the right. Tomatoes and goat cheese and toasted bread, front and center. All in all…a meal that didn’t disappoint.