Home cooking. (mine).
In a rash moment the other day I offered a home-cooked meal to our guests, weary as they were of restaurant meals after two weeks on the road. Unfortunately, my mother then asks her friend J. if she would also cook for us, and arranges for that dinner the night before mine. This leaves me at an incredible disadvantage, as J. is one of the best cooks I know. I spend three days lying awake at night, trying to come up with a menu in my head as I fall asleep. Then, shocked at the state of my room, my mother tells me that she will do the cooking and I will spend the afternoon cleaning up my apartment. Which leaves me with only two courses to prepare, instead of an entire meal.
I come home to all sorts of goings-on in my kitchen, colanders full of vegetables, pots of broth on the stove, and slices of white daikon radish that will become translucent as they cook. I have three hours to make my home presentable, to vacuum crumbs from the living room carpet and put books back on shelves, to set the dining table that never gets used when I am on my own. I lay out white plates and chopsticks and soup spoons and drinking glasses, set out small bowls for rice and larger bowls for soup, those beautiful blue-and-white Tord Boontje ones that have patterns of flowers and trees and woodland creatures on them, one of the first things I bought for my new home, nearly two years ago. I drain frozen corn and lay marinated black cod steaks on a roasting tray. And then the doorbell rings.
We start with cheese and crackers and oven-roasted grapes, some kind of creamy Brie that goes well with the poppyseed crackers, the tart-sweet wrinkly grapes, still warm from the oven. (The grapes are a new thing that another friend of my mom invented, and which she has adapted for her own. This is how new dishes come into a repertoire, tasted at the homes of friends or in restaurants, and reinterpreted or adapted for our own tastes). We move on to soft taro in a light sauce of green onions; they had been steamed and peeled, and then cooked with the scallions until the flavors melded together, a little sweet, a little salty. Then it is my turn to start cooking my two courses, corn stir-fried with toasted pine nuts and broiled miso cod, two of my favorite dishes.
I leave the pine nuts to toast on the stove and start warming up the daikon radish, and my inopportune multi-tasking does not work - the pine nuts burn as soon as I take my eyes off them - so I pour them out and start over. This time I pay attention, pouring them into a dish when they have browned (not a moment too soon), and then stir-fry the corn until just cooked, adding the toasted pine nuts, seasoning it all with just enough salt to bring out the sweetness of the corn, the nuttiness of the pine nuts. Only then do I turn to the reheated daikon radishes; I toss them with a little shredded braised beef before serving. The oven is finally hot enough for me to slide in the black cod, letting it broil until browned in spots and bubbly. The cod has been marinated with miso and rice wine and sugar, which caramelizes under the broiler, bringing out the naturally sweet richness of the fish.
At the end, my mom stir-frys the choppped bok choy with shreds of fried tofu, soft and a little chewy. There is a light soup, made with pork broth and tiny florets of cauliflower and some egg beaten with a little water and cornstarch, which billows into frothy drops, and it signifies the end of the meal. For dessert there is more fruit and chocolate-espresso brownies and the cheese we had earlier, and my mother introduces Mrs. Q to the joys of triple-chocolate Dove bars (which I only have on hand when my mom is in town) while I eat all the blueberries and clean up the kitchen.
Nothing like a home-cooked meal, after all.