Ironically enough, working in a restaurant has only convinced me further that food is a learning curve I will never master. Not only am I useless in a taste test, I legitimately find it impossible to handle food without making some hilarious (or dangerous) mistake. I look back with such fondness on the time in Ireland when our apartment’s knives were too dull to slice through the chicken and the raw meat got stuck to my fingers in such a disgusting way that I was reduced to hysterics as I crouched on the floor. How could I ever forget that joyous occasion on which I set a pot of beans on fire? Or that other time when I splashed hot oil on my eyelid? I can’t remember a time when when my friends and I haven’t shared a good-natured chuckle over that day when even my tofu-chopping was criticized by a passing peer…
So, one may wonder why, after so much unfortunate kitchen blunders I decided to invite three other people to share my cooking on Friday evening. Well, you know us Oberlin students. They keep telling us we’re fearless. After two dreams involving cooking accidents (one in which a friend was arrested for not wearing a hairnet while making finger sandwiches, and another where I nearly poisoned that same friend’s baked tofu as he pulled it from the oven), and after spilling a quarter of a vat of sour cream all over the place at work, I figured it was time to face my fear. Enter: my friend Móna’s book.
(Seriously, check out her blog, because this woman is unbelievably wonderful, and I’m so lucky to have met her while I was abroad!)
The Chef & I by Móna Wise chronicles her amazing life, from meeting her husband, to adopting and fostering her four children, to her passion for wholesome, comforting, local cooking. Anyway, since a love of good food informs so much of Móna’s narrative, it would only make sense that she would include recipes in the latter portion of the book. I went over to her house for dinner near the end of my semester in Ireland, and, let me tell you, it was beyond heavenly. I was pretty sure I would never be able to attain that level of brilliance, but I was nonetheless inspired to try at least one recipe from her book. Mussels and anything with ingredients I couldn’t even begin to pronounce may be out of my league, but I was determined to make the portobello fries with a tomato-basil dipping sauce. It was just mushrooms, chopped, slathered in stuff, and fried. And I’d fried stuff before. (See: burning oil on eyelid story.) I was so confident in my ability to make this appetizer that I invited people over for dinner before I’d even gone to the store… Below is the adventure that followed.
Basil-infused olive oil:
1 small bottle of extra virgin olive oil
(am I the only one who really likes when Rachael Ray calls it “Ee Vee Oh Oh”?)
appx 1 cup of fresh basil leaves (with the stems)
3/4 – 1 diced onion
2 heads of garlic ~ unpeeled and chopped in half (yes, I was skeptical, but nothing bad happened. Even if tossing two unpeeled heads of garlic in the mix was incorrect, no one died.)
Basically, you just toss all this into a pot and let it boil until it’s dark brown. Then you strain it, let it cool, and funnel it back into the bottle where it will exist for your culinary convenience until it’s gone! I don’t know what olive oil tastes like on it’s own, so I guess I’m a poor judge of whether I did this correctly, but, if nothing else, I just boiled olive oil with some stuff in it for a little while and then funneled that same olive oil back into it’s bottle… If nothing else, this activity might be deemed character building?
1/2 cup of this new basil-olive oil you’ve just brewed
2.5 cans of chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp of black pepper
salt to taste
some fresh basil leaves
a bit of butter
1 clove of garlic (this was my addition, since I found one laying on the counter)
You want to heat up the chopped tomatoes and then add the olive oil. Stir it around, but also trust that you’re doing okay even if the tomatoes don’t seem to be cooking down right away. A very wise friend of mine told me while I was trying to weasel my way out of learning to sautee onions that you shouldn’t fear food. Even if you don’t do it perfectly, it’s generally going to taste fine and no one will know but you. So, I’m imparting that morsel of advice on to you. Don’t fear food. Just roll with it. Once you add the oil, add some basil and the butter, and garlic, then season as you see fit throughout the rest of the cooking process. It’s pretty straightforward. Not much to screw up, but it did end up a bit oily, so I think I may need to start using actual measuring cups in future…
6 large portobello mushrooms
salt & pepper
flour for tossing
egg wash (4 eggs in a bowl, beaten, with a splash of milk)
2 cups of bread crumbs
Slice the mushrooms into thick wedges, sprinkle them with salt & pepper, then flop them in the flour. Once they’re coated, slap them in the egg wash, making sure that the egg soaks through the flour. Then bury them in bread crumbs and set them on a tray to dry for a few minutes. (Cooking is so active!) While you’re doing this, have a pan with a few cups of sunflower or conola oil heating on the stove. Once the oil’s hot, drop the breaded ‘shrooms in the oil and let them fry until they’re brown and crispy. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already miscalculated the amount of breadcrumbs you will need and have no idea what to do with the extras. (Suggestions?) Now, if you’re exactly like me, while you’re worrying about this, you will forget that you have oil heating on the stove and your house will fill with smoke. This would not have been a problem if friends weren’t coming over to judge the hell out of my saucery. As it was, we threw open all the windows and doors, so the fries actually cooled faster than the friends arrived. I was a little sad, but nothing caught fire, so A+!
My friends arrived and we all sat down to eat. I made some Annie’s mac as an entree to have some form of protein to bulk up the meal, and there was (of course) some cheap wine that went splendidly (or not) with the whole meal. It was a brilliant night, and just what I needed after a week of misery. Once again, cooking, although it is a constant worry in my life, has simultaneously filled my life with meaning where before it was filled with…a comfy couch and an overheating computer. So, listen up, Future Miserable Jen! Don’t just sit around moping on the couch that swallows your tiny ol’ body! Get up, take a stroll to the grocery store, turn on some jams, make yourself a wholesome meal, and invite some friends to share it with you. Nothing could be better…
And can I just mention very quickly for the record that I, Jen Graham, made almost all of this by scratch and no one died?
I think the next project might be salmon topped with mango salsa. A bit ambitious perhaps, but stay tuned!