Beyond Pork Chops and Apple Sauce

IMG_9525When it comes to feeding ourselves in the home, most of us are less adventurous than we think. Even though our palates may broaden at the restaurant table, widen into the exotic while on vacation to foreign places, or take stabs at something new while browsing bustling gourmet food courts or marketplaces, we tend to pull from the same, standard repertoire of dishes when cooking in our kitchens. Most of us, single, coupled, or married with children, typically maintain a cadre of tried and true recipes we learned from our parents, simple things we learned to make for ourselves when suddenly on our own in the world, and special dishes that are more complex and pride-worthy to make on special occasions. Most of us rely on these and rarely step out of the box.

My kitchen used to operate that way when I lived alone. Goodies from mom’s childhood that I inherited into mine included Swedish pot roast and salmon patties with creamed peas. These shared calendar time with a bevy of chicken dishes I had taught myself in my twenties: piccata breasts, spicy Thai thighs, lemon-pounded tenders. Bamboo steamed sticky rice with soy baked tofu and various pots of Americanized spaghetti rounded out that list. The rest of my food came ready made from the gourmet to-go counters at Whole Foods, Lemonade or Gjelina. In my late thirties, my ordinary menu had become quite boring.

When the film Julia & Julia came out showcasing a woman combing through a cookbook and making every single recipe, I was completely inspired by the idea of perpetually making something new. So when I moved in with the CG I made a vow never to make the same thing twice. This plan has held up well with one tiny aberration being my repeating pot of arduous saffron risotto (precious dishes like this one are hard to refuse). This credo has produced a wild journey at our dining table full of delicious and surprising favorites like last week’s unctuous brick chicken and pepper roasted cauliflower as well as some comically, dreadful flops like my overly dried Wellington equivalent to $50 of beef down the toilet. But even when a meal is bad, I am still happier for having tried something new. And it makes the next great meal even better in comparison.

On the flip side, the Cute Gardener has been a huge inspiration for me in teaching me to look at an ordinary dish and to unfold its elements in order to see if something new can be created from it. This has become a fun game in our household. Last night, when presented with the ingredients for traditional pork chops and sautéed vegetables, the CG turned the result around into an astonishing and homey Asian noodle soup. The pork was braised into fatty, tender, fall apart nuggets, poured along with the meat’s cooking juice onto a pile of boiled udon noodles with slightly flash boiled petals of bok choy. It only takes a little imagination to see the flip side of a meal yet many of us are intimidated by striking out into the unknown.

I like the idea that, at 41, I could very well have double that amount of years left to sample myriad culinary pleasures. In a world full of uncertainties on many other fronts, it gives me comfort knowing that simple joys are available to me in my kitchen and that my nightly meals will never be something I take for granted.

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