Monday, August 11, 2008

Guest blogger: Feeding 15 on the fly

Posted By on Mon, Aug 11, 2008 at 2:38 PM

Zen cooking

By Julia Stedman

I turned to my husband and said “if Mama asks me to cook supper, will you give me five dollars?” He gave me a very knowing half smile. Surely to God, with an hour left on our four hour drive and the sun setting, I was in the clear. Not so. Fifteen minutes later mama called asking us to retrieve my sociopathically late sister and bring her to join the rest of the family, their families, and a dozen or so out-of-towners all there to celebrate my sister’s wedding. That’s fine Mama, we’re happy to pick her up. Then it came, in a voice that chirped like a song bird – “oh, and when you get here can you cook the etouffe? I’ve already peeled the shrimp for you.” I held the phone towards my husband and asked her to repeat the question, feigning cosmic cellular interference. He gave me another knowing half smile. Of course Mama, I’m happy to help.

While my mother is a perfectly respectable Cajun cook, I tend to be on the more adventurous side. So when some twenty years ago I announced my newfound avoidance of meat, I was pretty much left to my own devices if actually wanted to eat when I visited. Accommodating my constraints was not considered considerable.

We arrived to a chaotic household, and an even more chaotic kitchen. There were two aunts, one uncle, and at least one sister-in-law buzzing about with all the grace one expects from bumblebees. I went into “sarge” mode, which didn’t quite have the effect I was hoping for – looks like I’m dealing with a bevy of conscientious objectors.

Now I can start – at 8:00 PM - a meal for 15 people that was expected at 8:00 PM. The menu read shrimp etouffe. Assess ingredients. “Mama, do you have any celery?” “Sure baby, it’s right here. Oh I guess I don’t have any. Well, we can send someone to the store for it” No thanks - the nearest store is at least ten miles away. I go to my happy place…and recall a book called Instructions For the Cook. It’s a Buddhist gig, and a large part of it is about what I call Zen cooking. Kind of an allegory for life: take whatever you have on hand and make the best of it.

Here’s what I had: 5 lbs of freshly shelled shrimp, large can of diced tomatoes, large can of whole tomatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, dried spices, green bell pepper, spaghetti, and love.

First, a big gumbo pot of water is put on to boil. Next, chop the onions and garlic. I should have brought my own cutting board and knives. Eight thousand knives in that kitchen and not one could cut worth a shit. But no matter, I’m getting in the zone. The smell of the aromatics start to make the kitchen smell right. I throw in a couple of bay leaves and grate a few carrots for sweetness. In goes the bell pepper, and a few shakes of salt and cayenne. The first rumblings of compliments sprinkle in.

Three separate people ask where the rice is, or can they put the rice on. I said we wouldn’t be having rice, but rather, spaghetti. I may as well have grown a second head. I felt the need for a special dispensation from the local deacon for my apparent act of culinary heresy. Remember, I’m cooking for a bunch of Cajuns.

No time for a slow simmered sauce, and the heat is cranked up. In go the tomatoes and sauce. Dried oregano and thyme (from a quart jar – it’s just so economical!) add a layer of flavor, and I step outside for a glass of wine and a smoky-treat. Ten minutes later the sauce has reached a very serviceable consistency and the pasta is ready to drop.

As the pasta goes in, I turn the fire off on the vat of sauce. Now is the time to introduce the shrimp. There’s plenty of heat to cook them perfectly without fear of overcooking. Drop in big handfuls and stir very gently to allow the shrimp to become a real flavor contributor.

Now I’ll allow help. The troops rally to set the table and set up the serving to be family style. By some miracle, there’s some olive foccacia. That gets heated and set on the table with some herbed olive oil, salt, and pepper to pass.

As guests gathered at the table, a few asked “where’s the rice?” No rice, pasta instead. One way to ensure that your cooking will be received with the highest of accolades is to basically starve everyone until crackers and sardines sound like a gourmet delight.

But that is not the route I chose. I chose to try and make a delicious, heartfelt meal for anyone who cared to join in. And from the oooohs, aaaahs and mmmmms, I’m thinking I may have reached that goal.

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