LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 is to teach my stepdaughter Gabrielle how to cook. Happily, she’s on board with the plan, and yesterday we found ourselves in the kitchen making a roast chicken. Granted, she looked at me a little warily when I told her she would actually have to touch the chicken to stuff it — “Touching raw meat is what separates the men from the boys,” I informed her — but with just a slight wriggling of her nose, she held onto the drumsticks while I shoved onion, garlic, lemons and thyme into the cavity.
These lessons come at a great time as late January and especially February are the months I’m least inspired to cook. For some reason, I blank out at the grocery store and nothing sounds that delicious in my cookbooks this time of year. Everything has the feeling of “been there, done that,” and I flip away, talking myself out of almost every recipe because it doesn’t seem low-fat enough to get rid of the extra holiday poundage.
So this year, we’re relying on the “Teens Cook” cookbook she got for Christmas and making our way through its pages. So far, that has involved a very Ketchupy recipe for Sloppy Joes, salmon and vegetables en papillote, and tonight we’ll make chicken potpies. The dazzling puffed pastry lying over the ramekins is what sold her on that one, and I can’t say I blame her. Who can resist golden dough, after all?
Watching her cook has made me remember the days when I was first learning. It’s amazing how precise you are when you’re just starting and how it’s only time and experience that make you feel like you have permission to deviate. For example, one recipe she was working on called for 8 green beans. I think we can all agree it’s a little ridiculous to designate a specific number, but when I suggested that she perhaps use all 15 we had bought in order to make sure they didn’t go to waste, she was having none of it.
“If they wanted 15, they would have asked for 15. They want 8,” she said, and I had to admit she had a point.
It’s also amazing how stressful it is watching someone else use a chef’s knife. As my own hands can attest, cutting oneself is part and parcel of a beginner cook, and God knows I’ve got the scars to prove it. But the idea of her slipping and cutting herself makes me put my fists into my eyes, and I’m constantly fighting the urge not to swoop in and do it myself.
“Need a little help there, sweetie pie, love of my life, oh my god, that was close?”
“NO!” is the vigorous answer.
I’m also constantly tempering my teaching with letting her figure things out on her own. As my husband and all my friends who come for big dinner parties can attest, I’m a bossy cook. I’m not proud of it but when it comes to preparing dinner, I like things the way I like things and that’s that. My biggest fear, though, is being so directive it turns Gabrielle off cooking. So I’m learning to mash my lips together and just watch.
In part, I want her to become a fantastic cook because she has a serious nut allergy, and it’s going to mean restaurants and other people’s dinner parties will always be a little stressful for her to attend. Much easier will it be if she is often the hostess and can control the ingredients.
Selfishly, I also have a vision of her one day, perhaps when she’s in graduate school or medical school or doing something equally fantastic, inviting her dad and I for dinner. We’ll arrive with wine or flowers, and she’ll have her table all set and the kitchen will be steamy with preparation. We’ll watch her deftly navigate the recipes, and maybe she’ll ask me to do some menial task like light the candles or add lemon slices to the water pitcher.
If she has one, her boyfriend will be very nice and helpful and, hopefully for his sake, he’ll know a lot about cars so William can talk to him about them. Her apartment will be small, but cozy with hand-me-downs and peddler’s mall finds and IKEA purchases. We’ll sip a little wine and she’ll be calm and organized, and then it will be time to serve the meal.
Then maybe, maybe if I’m very lucky, she’ll ask me my advice on something or I’ll watch her wordlessly do something exactly the way I’ve taught her, and I’ll feel like, even though I’m just the stepmom, I’ve given her something permanent, molded her future in an undeniable way.
Until then, we’ll keep plowing through “Teens Cook” as her skills accumulate and dinner is served. And we all sit down to her chicken potpie.