Oh, yes, I used to cook. I used to be a really good cook. I guess I’m still a really good cook, you just wouldn’t know by looking at our refrigerator. Or our dinner table. Now I’m bad cook. Good cook, bad cook. It all depends on where I am in book world.
The good cook thing started years ago. I used to follow recipes to the letter. Measuring carefully, scraping the tops of teaspoons, or not, if heaping, trying to figure out exactly what “medium potato” meant as opposed to “large.” (I thought, medium compared to what?)
Anyway, it was all fine, and I was pretty much married to the always-reliable Joy of Cooking (Chicken Kiev, p. 470, Beef Goulash p. 417) (You get the picture of how long ago it was.) But whoa. If I didn’t have the cookbook, I was out of luck.
Then by chance, years and years and years ago, I mean, in the 80’s, I bet - I picked up The Blue Strawberry Cookbook. The author was the chef at a restaurant he owned in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His theory of cooking is that it’s like chemistry. That you don’t really need a recipe when you know how ingredients work together.
For instance, say, pesto. You don’t need to measure out fresh basil and pine nuts and garlic and olive oil. What if you don’t have basil, but you do have spinach? What if you don’t have pine nuts, he suggested, but you do have walnuts? How ’bout spinach and walnut pesto? Sure, that would work. All you really needed was to understand WHY the ingredients worked together, and in what order and proportions they should go in.
Huh, I thought. That makes sense. And new worlds opened up. The recipes weren’t fixed in stone. They were just the chemistry rules.
Sautéed chicken in white wine sauce. You know how to make that - sauté the chicken in olive oil and butter, a little garlic, whatever amount works. (Yes, whatever amount works. Figure it out. If there’s not enough, add more. See?) Remove the chicken, and you have all that nice brown garlicky stuff in oil and butter. To make a sauce, you’d sprinkle with a little flour to make a paste, then add white wine until it’s right, salt and pepper, then stir over medium heat until it gets thick.
But listen. Instead of flour, you could add almond meal. Cornstarch. You just need a thickening thing. Or if you don’t need it thick, just skip to the liquid. If you don’t want to use white wine, how about chicken broth? Or, lemon juice, a little water, and vodka. And lemon peel. Ooh. Or amaretto. And slivered almonds. And orange peel. Or a little water, and Dijon mustard. And, um, black olives. (Would that be good? Not sure…). Maybe prosciutto.
Ah HA. Cooking! And you can use whatever’s in the fridge. Once, I had some lovely swordfish. And, I thought, nothing else. Scraping the bottom of the refrigerator (not literally) I found two ingredients everyone always has. And I made grilled swordfish with fresh parsley/horseradish sauce. It was fantastic.
Ah, yes. The good cook days. My husband has fond memories. Now, I’m in the bad cook days. Prime Time and Face Time are in the bookstores, and Air Time is on the way - so my cooking-time has gotten pushed to a new low. Pizza. Carry-out Tuscan salmon from Whole Foods. Brown rice sushi. Happily, it’s finally outdoor grill time, and always good-cook Jonathan is in his element. Luckily for me.
Oh, you’re asking: would Charlotte McNally cook? Even fictional reporters have to eat, and she’s a big food fan. But everything she does is on deadline - so she moves fast. Of course, it’s all about TIME. She’s got three reliable never-fail dishes that’ll wow even company - she’ll share them here soon!
And she’d love to hear any advice about your favorite TIME-savers!
Read Hank’s blog: PRIME TIME - For Dinner