My kitchen used to be a prison, and now it’s a sanctuary.
In the early years of my younger daughter’s life, she had to follow a series of complicated medically prescribed diets that left me frantic for recipes and alternative products. The kitchen was the battlefield where I wrestled gluten-free starches and egg substitutes and strange milk alternatives into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was where I brought many times the normal grocery budget for one year, and a head-scratching selection of 1980s diet foods for one terrible spring. That kitchen held the answer as to whether my daughter would eat well or starve. It was where I gave up me for her.
But something happened once she was well, and eating normally, and it happened to both of us.
After a while, I missed the thrill of the battlefield. I missed the puzzle of ingredients that I could assemble into a picture that made sense. I missed using my skills. I began, over the years that followed, to love my kitchen. When I cook or bake something delicious and beautiful, I feel a sense of accomplishment that is, finally, not also connected to fear of what might have happened if I failed. When I’m doing it, I am both energized and peaceful. I’m now grateful to be in my kitchen.
My daughters and I watch baking and cooking shows on TV, and I follow a handful of recipe blogs online. I’m energized by learning new techniques, new flavors, and new styles of cooking. When I hear about something exotic that sounds delicious, I want to try to make it myself; my daughters, too, will ask me, “Momma, can we learn to do that?” We just made our first dish with saffron for our hosted Passover seder, and I think this one’s going to stay on that table for years.
My paternal grandmother died when my father was a child, and we thought all her recipes were lost forever. Decades later, one of them surfaced in a cousin’s kitchen drawer after her death, and it made its way to us. The story of that recipe is one of the most popular posts on my blog, thanks to amplification by Kveller.com, but it’s also one of the holiest recipes in my collection. Whenever I make this kugel, I feel my grandmother’s presence in the room. Mixing cinnamon and sugar into corn flakes for the topping — this recipe is not the most complex one I make by far — I often find the light from my one window hits my counter just-so. Thank you, Grandma.
I used to get so blown-away by the colors of tropical fish. Growing up in the midwest, where most of the year is some combination of grey and brown, I couldn’t believe that somewhere, so much color came naturally and not out of paints or neon breakfast cereal. Then I started paying attention to fruits and vegetables. They’re incredibly bright and colorful! They hold all the hues of tropical fish – maybe not all at once, and not all in the same part of the growing season, but it’s all there. I love looking at freshly chopped vegetables. They’re works of art! (An aside: this photo is of the prep stage for one of our favorite recipes from Smitten Kitchen – you should definitely make it.)
Yes, beets get their very only thing-of-thankful. I’d never tried them until I was an adult. One night, a friend made them for dinner at her house, and I loved them, but that was before my younger daughter came around and turned me into a cook. When we started getting a box of organic produce once a week from Angelic Organics, it changed our lives – it made us learn how to cook all kinds of things we’d never had in our regular diet before. Beets were one of them, and they were abundent. On instinct and guesswork, I concocted a beet salad that my family absolutely loves:
Two or three beets, peeled and diced
One or two potatoes, peeled and diced
One or two carrots, peeled and diced
Boil the above in water until you can just BARELY smash them with a fork against the side of the pot. Drain. Add:
One or two chopped Israeli pickles
A nice-sized glob or two of mayonnaise
Mix well. If you want to get fancy, you can add some fresh dill.
Here are the vegetables, just-boiled and ready, with the pickles added. All they need is mayo, which will turn the whole thing a Barbie-pink color. My daughters won’t eat beets any other way.
5. Showing Off
Sometimes I get a little ambitious, but oh my oh my, when it comes out well and I can bring it to a party and say, “Yes, I made that,” then my kitchen was the training room for a champion!
4. The Light, the Moment
It’s in the mid-to-late-spring when my kitchen gets magical-looking right around the time when I’m preparing dinner. In the winter, it’s dark at 5pm, and in the summer, it’s still so bright that the light doesn’t angle in my window until we’re already eating in another room. But in the spring, just as I pull the fragrant, seasoned and shredded cabbage from the pot to taste over the sink, the light hits the steam coming off it and wow – the world is magical. Steam is beautiful in a beam of sunlight. Everything, actually, is beautiful in a beam of sunlight.
As they get older, our daughters can tolerate more kick, more zest, more punch, more heat in their food. I can add cayenne again, and curry powder, and they’re willing, and I know it.
Cookies are my favorite food in the whole world. I’ve definitely made thousands of cookies in my life, and most of them in the last seven years. Chocolate chip, cowgirl, Mexican chocolate, double chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, peanut butter, oatmeal, tahini lime, banana breakfast, I could go on and on. A batch of cookies in the oven is the best smell in the world.
She grew up, the girl who inspired me to cook in the first place. I started her last year on the basics of cooking in my kitchen: sautéing onions and garlic and mushrooms, and here she is. What better love in my kitchen than someone to share it with? What better gratitude than that she joined me here?
This week, my usual Finish the Sentence Friday colleagues are working with another prompt group called Ten Things of Thankful. What a lovely combination! You can read more writers sharing their thankful thoughts at FindingNinee or ThankfulMe.