I decided that part of my wedding gift to my cousin would be cooking lessons. She could choose the dish and I would teach her easy techniques, how to cook without recipes, and how to work with what you have. I actually chose the first dish because I knew it would be something she'd like and because I knew we'd need a little advance preparation for lesson one.
I chose chicken parm. But part of my goal here is to turn ordinary dishes into really good dishes and, as an extension of that, to make empirically unhealthy dishes very healthy. So the first thing I made her do was make breadcrumbs. By hand.
I wouldn't have made her crush the crumbs by hand if she'd had a food processor, but she didn't. So, instead, I told her to toast four pieces of whole-wheat bread to deep brown, a firm toast. She removed them from the oven and broke them into crumbs with her hands. We mixed that wheat crumb mixture with a quarter cup of fresh grated parmesan cheese, good old Italian seasoning from the bottle, salt, and pepper.
She said, "We have tons of tomato sauce in the cabinet." I said, "You're going to learn to make your own." I showed her how to chop a shallot and how to bruise garlic with the back of a knife. I added a tablespoon of olive oil to the bottom of a saucepan and sweated the two down. "This is what they are supposed to look like," I told her.
"Clear?" she asked.
Next up, two large cans of peeled Italian tomatoes, salt, pepper, wine (I brought a Chianti), a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, a tiny bit of sugar (I would have used agave nectar, had I thought better of it), fresh basil, and fresh oregano. They had no bay leaves so I skipped the step. I left the pot uncovered. She asked if the sauce was supposed to be shrinking. I said that was exactly what I wanted it to do.
We bought a head of broccoli. She had never cooked fresh broccoli before. "Break off the florets," I told her. "Put them on a baking dish." Her engagement gift spice rack of filled spices gave us chili powder, coriander seeds, and cumin. She covered the broccoli with, admittedly, a little too much olive oil. I sprinkled the spices on top.
I told her to separate three eggs. She knew how to do this. We seasoned the egg whites and dipped the chicken breasts in them. The breasts went from egg to breadcrumbs to baking pan and into a 350 degree oven along with the broccoli.
"You're going to make your own salad dressing," I told her. She scooped a teaspoon of dijon mustard into a bowl and added a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.
"Give me the whisk," I said.
"I don't have one," she told me.
"I'm looking at one," I said.
"Oh. I didn't know we had that."
I taught her to emulsify. "Pour while I whisk," I said. "The mustard helps bind the oil to the vinegar to the oil, since vinegar and oil constantly want to separate." I added salt and pepper and put the dressing to the side.
Next up, garlic toasts. I minced four cloves of garlic and heated them in a saucepan with a few turns of olive oil and three tablespoons of a low-cholesterol butter spread the had in the house (good for consistency and only 50 calories per tablespoon). I added a chiffonade of basil and oregano. When the mixture was just short of a simmer, I took it off the heat and spooned it over three split whole-wheat English muffins, and put the muffins inside the toaster.
Thirty minutes into cooking time on the chicken, I removed the trays, topped the breast with thinly sliced fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, oregano leaves, and an ample helping of the tomato sauce. I returned the chicken to the oven to melt and continue cooking.
We served the chicken parm, which, by the way, tasted unhealthy enough, with whole-wheat pasta, our garlic toasts, a simple salad, and the roasted broccoli. Both my cousin and her fiance seemed amazed that we had conquered it all on our own without screwing up. My cousin was particularly impressed with my refusal to go by any book or recipe. I told her that all you need is a general understanding of how things work and you can succeed in the kitchen.
But the real problem was that she viewed the product of cooking--the actual meal--as the point, and I don't abide by that philosophy. For me, the trip to the market, the creative process, the time getting my hands dirty, these are all therapeutic elements in and of themselves. I enjoy the whole process of cooking, from start to finish. I like knowing that I can be inspired by produce at a grocery store and that cooking doesn't always mean being armed with an ingredient list or a list of instructions.
I was hoping that bringing her in touch with her food would inspire in her a new desire to want to cook, to want to create things that she could be proud of. And she did take pride in the accomplishment of the completed meal. I'm still hoping that the result of this ongoing project will be an increased drive to get her hands dirty, to love food a little more than she currently does. On that point, the jury is still out. Stay tuned.