Friday, August 8, 2014

Iron Chef Oakwood

My two favorite hobbies - okay, my two ONLY hobbies, until I was recently introduced to the diabolically addictive 2048 - are cooking and eating.

My parents taught me to cook at a pretty young age. Family lore has it that my mom came into her marriage unable to do much more than boil water, so she was determined that we'd all learn to cook. She's a great cook now, as is my dad, and the two of them taught me both how to follow a recipe and when not to. I honed my skills in the foreign service, because if you live in a country without pizza, you'd damned well better learn to make your own pizza dough. And if you ever again want to have that awesome dish they served you once in Kazakhstan, you have to learn how to tease out flavors, how to experiment until you can make a decent approximation of the dish in your new kitchen in Beijing.

I have been known to spend days preparing for one dinner party. Not because I'm making anything complicated; rather, it's usually because I'm living somewhere complicated.

Take for example, lasagna. Basic staple in every American kitchen, right? We all have a recipe somewhere. But when the lovely and talented JennD (from whom I stole the most delicious enchilada recipe ever, by the way) pointed out that making lasagna for four people would set you back over $50 in Beijing just because of the cost of imported cheese, I decided to learn how to make ricotta. It's easy! It's better than store bought! But it does tack on some time to the recipe prep.

So lasagna. Let's say I invited you over for lasagna in Amman. Well, I'd need to do my shopping at 5 separate stores: the Z store, Meat Master, the commissary, the vegetable stand guy on the corner, and probably Cozmo as well. I'd make the sauce two days ahead (because bottled sauce is an abomination before the lord). Cheese, too, and then I'd assemble the lasagna a day ahead - it's always better the second day, you know.

But I'd still need a salad. So I'd visit the veggie guy, to see if he had spinach that day. Triple wash? Ha! That's for amateurs and people who enjoy eating sand - you need to soak the dirt out of that stuff, which takes approximately half of forever.  No pre-washed salad in a bag overseas. I'd need to find berries, maybe, or carrots. Nuts? You need to roast and chop them yourself, or caramelize them in syrup if you're being super-fancy. And let's not forget dessert! I refuse to spend $8 on a brownie mix out of principle, so that has to be made from scratch, too. These things take time, people. And so that lasagna dinner prep gets spread out over three long days overseas.

But then I went to Seattle, where there is a Trader Joes just down the road from my sister's house, and did you know you can buy pre-cooked lentils? And pre-washed herbs and pre-shredded cheese and pre-just-about-anything-you-need. Pick up a rotisserie chicken, some pre-washed baby greens and a pack of sliced, already-cooked beets and dinner is served. No wonder cooking is a lost art. I didn't need to actually cook or wash or peel or chop anything! I loved cooking in Seattle.

(Okay, let's be honest. I loved going to Japanese restaurants in Seattle. I loved watching relatives cook for me while I sat at the counter, chatting and downing margaritas, or those awesome marshmallow vodka drinks which, incidentally, why did my sister not introduce me to that beverage until my last day there? My point is, when I had to cook, it wasn't all that tricky.)

But this week I'm staying at the Oakwood. In the interest of keeping the bad guys from tracking me down and stealing my last remaining still-fits-despite-home-leave pair of pants, I'm not going to tell you which Oakwood I'm at. You could find me pretty easily, though. Just go into any Oakwood, get off at a random floor, and listen for the sound of kids fighting viciously at the end of the hallway. If you hear it, chances are good you've found me. Steal the kids, please, but don't touch the still-fits pants. I'm through shopping!

Are you still reading? Because I'm about to get to my point, which is: cooking at the Oakwood is a whole lot different from cooking at my sister's house. My sister had olive oil. Macadamia oil. Avocado oil. Walnut oil. And so on. Here, I not only lack oil of any sort, but I have exactly zero spices. Salt? Ha! Red pepper? I think not. But I'm only here for a week, and how much do I want to spend on groceries when there is a perfectly delicious pho restaurant right across the street?

I tried to cook the first night here. I sent my husband to the store, and he came back with a desolate little bag o' groceries from the depressing grocery store down the way. Baby carrots covered in a film of not-quite-mold. Some canned beans. Lettuce. Ketchup. A whole roasted chicken. Etc. I looked through the cabinets, hoping to find a discarded salt pack left over from the last resident's take out french fries, but alas. The Oakwood cleaning staff was too good for me. I rinsed the beans, shredded some salmonella carrots over them and sprinkled them with cheese. I briefly toyed with the idea of tossing a teaspoon of ketchup in there, too, but instead I scooped the beans onto a plate, closed my eyes and chewed them down slowly, imagining I was actually savoring something decent. Even the leftover chicken bones were subpar - without any star anise or onions to toss into the pot of bones and water, the resulting broth turned out flat and boring.

I think this is the State Department's way of making sure you're ready to go to your next post. When too many weeks of take out food have you outgrowing your favorite pants but there aren't enough days left to invest in sriracha, it's time to get on that plane and get back to a world of slow cooking overseas.

It's time, people.

Now let's all cross our fingers that my welcome kit comes with a decent knife. And is it too much to hope for a cheese grater?


Shannon said... [Reply]

Go buy a half way decnt knife you know the ones in the welcome kit are useless, wrap it up and put in checked bags. And marshmallow vodka drinks PLEASE tell me you got the recipe for that???

Elaine said... [Reply]

So cruel to mention a fab enchilada recipe and not share! LOL
Wishing you well, and looking forward to following your further adventures.

Donna said... [Reply]

I'll ask my sister for the recipe, Shannon, but I'll bet it's something impossible to make overseas...

Please. Write your own stuff.