Dinner for three.
My parents are in town, arriving late at night to a hastily tidied apartment and a refrigerator stocked with ridiculous amounts of vegetables and two kinds of ice cream (Cherry Garcia for my dad, triple-chocolate Dove bars for my mom). And now it is time to cook proper food. This is the most difficult part of any visit; not the part where I cede the master bedroom with its queen-size bed and ensuite bathroom, not the part when I put away the books that ordinarily pile up on the coffee table or the stacks of mail that wobble dangerously on the otherwise abandoned dining table. The hard part is dealing with the fact that now I have to think of a meal as a coherent whole, with dishes that appeal to my carnivorous father (who feels that a meal without meat is incomplete) and my herbivorous mother (who can eat an entire plate of garlic-laced sautéed spinach at one go) and can be whipped together as quickly as possible. And at the same time.
Cooking for other people is a lesson in timing, in anticipation. When I am eating alone I rarely use more than one pot, or make more than one or two dishes for myself. When I am cooking for the three of us, there are usually at least three dishes, more often four. It is hard to manage more than two burners at once, so some things have to be done ahead of time, or one dish can be something cold, or something baked in the oven. Often there is a braised dish, which can be slowly left to cook on low heat, needing little attention save an occasional stir. (Bonus points if there is enough for two nights, easy to reheat gently while I deal with other things). For sautéed dishes, I am lazy, so I often use the same pan for two dishes without washing it in between, so anything involving garlic or soy sauce will have to be cooked last, or it will contaminate the next dish.
Tonight I cooked some Dover sole for dinner, along with stir-fried (-ish, since I haven't got a proper stove or a wok) garlic-soy green beans, roasted carrots, and Portabello mushrooms sautéed with a little chopped onion. The carrots were tossed with a little olive oil and sea salt and shoved into the toaster oven (insanely, large enough to handle a 9x9 Pyrex baking dish). Then the onions were sautéed until translucent and just turning golden, before I added the sliced mushrooms, cooking it all together until they were tender but not squidgy. Next came the green beans, well actually, the minced garlic heated in oil until they were lightly browned, and then adding the beans, tossing to coat with the garlic-infused oil. A little water went in, and then the cover clapped on. Later I would splash in some soy sauce, perhaps a little more water. They are ready when the beans are just browned in spots but not burnt. (On more than one occasion I have burned them, leading my mom to ask if I was trying to poison us all with carcinogens).
While the beans were cooking, I heated another pan, this time a cast-iron skillet, for the Dover sole. This was a mistake. I should have used a non-stick pan, because the fish stuck to the pan, and then fell apart when I tried to flip it. These things happen. You move on, and anyway it's time to eat dinner, leaving all the mistakes in the kitchen with all the dirty pots and pans, the garlic skins, the green bean ends, the carrot peels. Concentrate on the tender white flesh of the sole, the sweetness of the roasted carrots that are almost like candy, so caramelized they became in the oven, the savory garlic-soy flavor of the beans. Think about how good steamed white rice is, how mushrooms and onions meld together so perfectly, how happy you are that your parents are here again.
It was all very good, and we finished everything except the rice. And tomorrow I will have to start all over with something new.