I can still picture the kitchen where I believe I learned to cook. Oh, I knew how to make a scant few dishes before I ever stepped foot there. But it was in this small, warm kitchen that I acquired the confidence to just throw things at a pot and see what happens, and that, to me, is the essence of cooking. It was in this kitchen that I broke free of my compulsion to slavishly follow a recipe and learned to approach dinner preparations with a freer, can-do attitude. The kitchen belonged to a little house on College Avenue in Ithaca, New York. You’d step in the front door, turn left, and there you were. It was an eat-in kitchen, which I think was probably rare in our college student walk of life. The range was in the corner, the sink nearby. It was a small space, and the table and chairs took up most of the room. Cozy.
It wasn’t my kitchen. “My” kitchen wasn’t really my kitchen at all. It was a few blocks uphill on the same street, on the third floor of an apartment building, sounds of the bar downstairs wafting their way through the open windows. The kitchen in my apartment was the domain of C, one of my five roommates. The rest of us used it as a cereal repository only, perhaps respecting C’s exclusive right to the kitchen since she made delicious things there and we did not. Yes, I made spaghetti from time to time and fancied myself a chef because I seasoned the jarred marinara with garlic powder and dried oregano. But I didn’t cook there. No, I cooked in that other kitchen, down the hill, where eggplant slices sizzled in olive oil and coconut milk turned into sweet and spicy Thai soups thanks to the power of a confident imagination. R’s imagination.
It was a thrill to grocery shop with her. I couldn’t see the potential of a pile of spinach or a jar of miso, but she could. And into the cart things would fly. Then we’d load the spoils into R’s car, hope it wouldn’t start raining (the wipers were temperamental) and drive back uphill, back to Collegetown, serenaded by Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre. We’d laugh and chatter as we made dinner in her kitchen – invariably something delicious that came from R’s head; I never saw her consult a cookbook in those days – and after dinner we’d curl up on the couch with glasses of wine and watch quality television such as “Married By America,” our favorite reality show. (Anyone remember that gem?) Those days were bittersweet. We were seniors and going our separate ways soon. R was bound for Africa with the Peace Corps. I was headed to law school in Washington, D.C. We would write letters, but I think we both realized that the days of spending every waking moment together, except for the couple of classes we took separately, were numbered. I knew that soon I wouldn’t see R every morning as we walked up College Avenue together toward the main Cornell campus, that I wouldn’t stumble smack into her after Wines class, that we wouldn’t be able to cook dinner and watch bad TV together every night until 11:00 when I would finally wend my way home to my own apartment. We had a brief few months left of freedom before our lives began, and those months were steeped in the scents of spices and sauces, and they played out to the sounds of sizzle and simmer.
R changed my relationship with food. She made it something I thought about. Whether it was Thai-inspired eggplant soup or the melting-hot tomato, cream cheese and muenster bagels we ordered at Collegetown Bagels (or CTB, as we called it), food was suddenly interesting. It was something people talked about and created and enjoyed. It was more than pretzels that you popped in your mouth during an all-nighter before an economics final or the pickles you snacked on because they were virtually calorie-free. (Just me?) Food was an experience. Where before I hadn’t really given food a second thought, now I knew things about it. I knew that you had to salt eggplant and then rinse it off, and I knew how it wrung out like a sponge when you squeezed it under the running water. I knew that one bay leaf was plenty and you needed to pick it out of the sauce before you ate. I knew that you could cook together and laugh and gossip and share a meal, and that a warm and spicy soup could leave an impression on your mind as well as your tongue.
I knew these things because of R and I desperately wanted to give something back to her. Finally, I got my chance when she asked me to show her how to make poached eggs. Poached eggs were one of the few dishes that I could make when I started college, and they’ve always been my standby quick dinner or Sunday breakfast. I learned to make them by watching my grandmother. She made them simple, fuss-free; no swirling or fancy gadgets for her. You slip the toast in the toaster slot, plop the eggs in the water and you’re halfway there. Over the years I figured out that the eggs would come out perfectly if I followed a certain series of acts, and I felt as though I’d unlocked a great culinary secret. No, my poached eggs aren’t pretty. But they are good. And I got to share them with R, and they became one of her go-to dishes, too. After all that I learned from watching her, it’s the least I could do.
Easy Poached Eggs for Two Friends
2-4 slices bread*
butter or margarine
salt and pepper to taste
- In a saucepot or saute pan, bring approximately 2 inches of water to just shy of a boil.
- Place bread slices in toaster and set for medium.
- Immediately upon putting in toast, crack the eggs directly into the water.
- As soon as the toast pops, turn the water off and then butter the toast as fast as you can. Take the eggs out and place them on the toast, 1-2 eggs per slice. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
*Nota Baker: I used to eat 1 egg to 1 slice of toast but lately I’ve been putting 2 eggs on 1 slice of toast. It cuts the carbs in half and hubby thinks that “the egg to toast ratio” is better. ROTFL, as R and I would say.
Source: Messybaker’s grandmother