Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Activity Book for Romantic Gourmands

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I AM GNAWING ON A TENDER, SMOKED, ORANGE MARMALADE COATED, PORK KNUCKLE WHILE I WRITE. IT'S SURPRISINGLY LEAN, PINK AND GLISTENING, STAINED WITH LUSTY STREAKS OF RED LIPSTICK. IT'S MY TROPHY FEED, WON BY TALKING THE YOUNG WOMAN BEHIND THE DELI COUNTER INTO PARTING WITH IT."How much for the pork knuckle?," I ask."Oh, this?" she responds, gesturing to the only pork knuckle in the case."We can't sell it yet. Still has too much meat on the bone. We have to wait until it gets below 800 grams.""Why?" I ask. Genuinely curious."Because we're still selling the meat," she repeats."Right." I say. "Can you carve off enough meat to get it to 800 grams. I'll buy the carved meat, as well as whatever is left on the bone. You can wrap them separately, if you prefer. She agrees, carving away as we discuss the heightened flavour and tenderness, the closer you get to the bone."I don't know why more people don't want it," she says weighing the knuckle. Nobody ever asks for it. That's why it's inexpensive."Even after vigorous carving, the knuckle weighs almost 900 grams, but she gamely wraps it up and sticks an 800 gram price on it. My kinda woman. My mouth is watering. It's well past lunch, but too early for dinner. Still, I've no doubt what my next meal will be. And the one after that. Whatever is left from my pork feast will go into a slow cooking pot with black beans. I love New York-style deli food, not to be confused exclusively with cold cuts. I love Old Fashioned American diner fare like fried chicken and mashed potatoes, meatloaf and hot turkey sandwiches piled high on the plate. Barbecues and big pots of spicy chili. Homemade pizza and slow, slow cooked risotto. Thick, comforting soup with a loaf of freshly baked bread, hot out of the oven. Old Fashioned casseroles. Lime and garlic roasted chicken. Caesar salad. Salsa. Enchiladas. Guacamole. Wild salmon. Fish and chips. Eggs. Grand Marnier Souffle. Cake. And picnics.

I am mad about picnics and all manner of al fresco dining, even though I haven't lived in California for over a decade. Granted, it's a lot more work to haul food outside, especially in England, where you have to haul it back indoors three minutes later, but inconvenience is rarely a deterrent for me.Having lived most of my life in California, "The Salad Bowl of The World," with three years in New Jersey, "The Garden State," and eight years in Kent, "The Garden of England," it's probably an understatement to say I'm as passionate about fruit, vegetables and herbs as most women are about shoes or jewelry. Fresh produce is the one food group I cannot live without.As husbands, lovers and friends learned early on, I will go far off the beaten path for farm shops and farmer's markets, always on the look out for the freshest, tastiest produce, dairy and meat. I get a thrill out of growing anything edible, though I don't have the knees, knowledge, or acreage to be a serious gardener.

Most years I grow herbs: mint, lemon balm, sage, thyme, rosemary, borage, lavender, spring onions, parsley, cilantro, winter savory, basil, and garlic. This is the first year I have not tried growing tomatoes, as the previous summers yielded a green, watery harvest. My miniscule strawberry patch, however, is undaunted by rain and delights me to no end.Planning menus, and making mealsis one of my great pleasures, some might even say it's my obsession, though I have never wanted to be a professional chef. I enjoy taking my time over food and the setting in which it is served. We eat first with our eyes, thus, even when making a meal for myself, presentation is paramount. I don't think I've ever stood in my kitchen eating over the sink, though I have stood at the stove stirring and tasting risotto until it was nearly gone.

The idea for "Lovers Kitchen" came to me shortly after the millennium, while living in Sacramento, California with Umberto. Cooking together was our passion. I had never cooked with such a naturally intuitive chef, especially when it came to all things Italian. There was never a recipe, just a lifetime of every day experience, combined with enthusiasm for thoughtfully prepared, home cooked meals. While most of the men in my life have known their way around the kitchen, for Umberto, father of four, grandfather of nine, the kitchen is all of life. It is where everything that matters happens. Throw in some opera, a couple of playful terriers and a bottle of Chianti and you have his recipe for domestic bliss.

I met JJ the week I moved to New Jersey from Northern California. It was early spring when everything comes alive. Our first date was a hand-holding-stroll along the Shrewsbury River. Our hands fit perfectly, as if they were made to be intertwined forever. It was a startling discovery. I have never felt such an organic physical connection with another person. We suppered at a popular Red Bank diner called The Broadway. It was the perfect setting for a New York actor and a California ad woman. Everybody needs an accomplice in life. JJ was mine.

We wooed and courted each other in the kitchen, creating aphrodisiacs we called "the perfect bite." We experimented with taste combinations and textures. We plotted and entered recipe contests. We read each other food articles and cookery books in bed. For inspiration, we sought out the best specialty and farmer's markets, delis and diners, pizzerias, hotdog, burger and barbecue joints, ice cream stands and chowder houses on the eastern seaboard. Whenever we tasted something truly marvelous, we attempted to recreate it at home.

Cooking and eating together was a full body experience. Sometimes it was an out of body experience. It was theater. It was romance, comedy, drama, and occasionally a mystery. It was addictive and intoxicating. The more pleasurable the meals, the more pleasurable meals we craved. There was so much love in our kitchen, we took to calling it "Lovers Kitchen," while I filled stacks of notebooks with recipes and commentary filed under "Tales of Fearless Feasting and Culinary Coupling." Aaah, but not every great union is destined to last a lifetime. In my case this seems particularly true. Three years after moving to New Jersey, I was married to a dashing Englishman, living near London. Richard was such an excellent husband in every other way, I easily forgave him for having little interest in kitchen pursuits. He appreciated elegantly prepared meals and was endlessly patient with my attempts to master British cookery, his personal favourite. Fortunately, he also appreciated Italian, French and American cuisine.

The first couple of years living with Richard felt like a storybook. How could it not? Here I was living in the same, exact spot as Peter Rabbit, Winnie-The-Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Mary Poppins. I was captivated by the fairytale landscape with castles and moats; narrow boats floating through medieval canals; one majestic bridge after another, spanning the mighty Thames; green rolling hills, dotted with rustic farm shops; nurseries, located on long, rutted, single lane roads; Forests of English bluebells and miles of golden rapeseed; hedgerows two stories high; baby lambs; piglets; highland cattle; bunny rabbits; fox; robins and blackbirds gracing a landscape that had been occupied by the Greeks and Romans; sixteenth century pubs with ale that tasted nothing like the chemical stuff sold in America; savory meat pies and crispy fish and chips; creamy trifles and sculpted meringues, cleverly created to appease a child's palate.

Overnight, my life changed from an outsized oil painting, in reds, oranges and purple, to a series of skillful water colours, in soothing shades of greens and blues. Richard's England was the right place, at the right time, for me.

My husband delighted in showing off his gorgeous country. He took great pride in the natural beauty of the British Isles. We traveled from one end of Great Britain to the other, with leisurely stops in Devon, Somerset, East Sussex, Surrey, The Lake District, Manchester, and Scotland. The Kent and Surrey countryside, along with London, were our playground. While exploring these places, I fell in love with British cheese, fish, lamb, and ale. Tea too, took on new significance as my husband skillfully tutored me in George Orwell's "eleven sacred rules to tea making."

Lovers Kitchen gradually grew into an activity book. Richard began making complimentary music compilations for our dinner parties. Both of us being playful people, it wasn't much of a stretch to naturally come up with all sorts of themes, games and activities for amusing ourselves, family and friends.

Less than three years after moving to England, while writing "Lovers Kitchen" in earnest, Richard became seriously ill with a rare and deadly cancer. Eventually he would lose the ability to eat and drink. All of our time and resources were invested into trying to save my brave warrior's life.

We battled for forty agonizing, white knuckled months. London became synonymous with the word "hospital." As Richard died, I felt like I was dying too. I wasn't at all certain I could pick up where I had left off. I was filled with doubt, anger and absolute terror over what had happened to us. Violent tears would overtake me at the most inopportune times. I began to believe my life would be forever defined by grief and mourning. I sunk into a deep, dark depression. Rebuilding my life seemed like a hopeless task. Through it all, the only thing I did not lose was my appetite. I remained hungry and eager to cook.

After my husband's death, while going through his massive library, I came across several books he had bought me. I tearfully studied the devoted inscriptions he'd penned, humbled and heartbroken by his absence. Richard so believed Lovers Kitchen had a place in the world, I cannot help but believe it too. And so it turns out that the man who rarely shared my kitchen, the man who could not eat or drink for months on end, is the man who inspires me the most.

Here's to Richard,

Feast Fearlessly,

Love with a Brave, Brave Heart,

Marsha Coup

Kent, England


Sample stories, menus, recipes, and suggestions indexed in the TABLE OF CONTENTS, top left. All the recipes and menus are my own. I have tested them numerous times before sharing them with you. This said, I don't think I've ever followed a recipe. Not even my own. I hope you won't either. Recipes are ideas to fuel your own ideas and creativity. By all means, have a look at what I have to say about a combination of ingredients, then put your own clever spin on it.

Lovers Kitchen is Marsha Coupe's innovative book for romantic gourmands, who love to cook and entertain with gusto.
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