NO MORE NOT COOKING: Fish Cakes with Charlotte

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When we last saw our fearless heroine.

The Rigatoni Dribble Burn

Several years ago I made a food-related policy decision: No more not cooking! This meant that I would enlist friends to help me learn to cook and stop counting on my husband, Hiroyuki, who is a confident and excellent cook, to be the sole food maker for our family, including our boys, Cosmo and Rock. And including me, of course, although he says I don’t eat anything. This is not true. It is true that there is a list of foods I am suspicious of, a list of foods that gross me out and a list of foods I don’t eat. But the lists aren’t that long and most items that appear at all appear on all three. For example: duck. But there are lots of things I eat. What Hiroyuki means, I think, is that I don’t try anything new. This is true, unless it is a new cracker. A new food, especially if it is meat, fills me with dread. A new food, especially if it is being offered by someone who has lovingly cooked it, fills me with nerves: It is almost impossible to be polite and appreciative when you are spitting something into your napkin.

Conversely, Hiroyuki loves to eat everything——especially if it is new and especially if it is meat and especially if it is being offered. Alas, I cannot share his happiness because I will not try. How sad not to share. Really I am a sad sack full of the same old foods, especially buttered toast.

Of course, it is also possible that when Hiroyuki says I don’t eat anything what he means is that I don’t eat anything that is good for me. This is pretty close to being true. But there are exceptions! For example: raw red pepper.

But all of this about trying new things and eating healthy foods has nothing to do with the price of eggs (eggs are on my mind because I cook them all the time because I am convinced that my younger boy Rocky must have an egg every morning before he goes to his preschool program so that the protein in the egg will gobble up his impulse to throw two Weebles at teacher Kristen; the best eggs he’s had lately had no price at all——they were free because they were a gift from our friend Michelle Musnicki, who keeps her very own chickens; she is so nice——if I could be any chicken in the world, I’d be one of Michelle’s). Anyway, my policy decision of several years ago had only to do with cooking. I never made any promises at all about eating. Pre No More Not Cooking I said: “I cannot cook.” Now I say: “I will cook anyway.”

I will cook even though it makes me anxious to cook. I will cook even though I am embarrassed by what I make. I will cook even though it is dangerous to cook. Yes, dangerous, and this brings me to The Rigatoni Dribble Burn.

Innocently, I was boiling pasta for a pan of macaroni and cheese (to do this I follow the instructions of the very kind and generous Bill Stewart, who gave me a mac and cheese lesson early on in my NMNC adventure). Even though the timer had not gone off, I decided to test the pasta. I fished a rigatoni out with the knife I’d just used to cut off a hunk of cheese and popped that rigatoni onto the cutting board. Then, I picked it up with my fingers——hot——and tipped it into my mouth. OUCH!! A dribble of scalding water came from the hollow of the rigatoni noodle and scalded its way right down the center of my chin. Everything was hectic. I did not follow the instructions in the boys’ Red the Fire Dog’s I Can Be Safe in the Kitchen learning and activity coloring book they each brought home from preschool. I did not cool a burn with cool water. Instead, I cursed the individual rigatoni that had harbored the scalding water that burned me, drained the rest of the pasta and went on, in pain, with my mac and cheese concoction. By the time the mac and cheese was out of the oven, it was too late for first aid, and The Rigatoni Dribble Burn, an angry vertical line from the middle of my lower lip to the tip of my chin, had totally taken up residence.

The Rigatoni Dribble Burn lasted for a long time. It made an angry red scab. Very noticeable. The people I met fell into two categories: those that pretended not to see The Rigatoni Dribble Burn, and those that said “What happened to Your Face?” It was Joan, of Joni’s in Montauk, who is a compatriot Mama and of course a professional food person, who somehow combined both reactions. At first she said nothing and we talked about the kid’s upcoming field trip, but then she began to peer more closely, and finally with the most beautiful concern and caring, very much a hallmark of Joan: “What happened to your face?” I relayed the story. She studied The Rigatoni Dribble Burn, then reached out and touched my sleeve. Joan is a very sympathetic person. “It’s hard,” she said.

I will cook even though it’s hard.

Rock on in the universe! No more not cooking!

What was the scene?

I arrived with Cosmo at Charlotte’s house on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in February. The plan was that Cosmo and Dante, Charlotte’s son, would play while Charlotte and I had our cooking session. Rocky was spending the afternoon with his Grannie Lea. So you see there was no child-related, hands-full excuse for any kind of not cooking.I realize that there are people who cook dinner every single night amidst multiple children needing things and the phone ringing, but I am not one of those people. I am made of much more frazzled stuff.

My friendship with Charlotte dates back to our 1993––94 pregnancies. We met in prenatal yoga class! Our boys were born exactly one week apart. At the time I thought that Charlotte’s sunny outlook and well-adjusted personality had something to do with those well-being pregnancy hormones you sometimes hear about–—but five years later I know that this is just how Charlotte is: sunny with shade where appropriate, which is to say not glaring in your face, and well-adjusted in a natural, self tuning-up kind of way. Her son, Dante, is an easygoing, smiley playmate with whom my boy Cosmo has had an easy connection. Our plan was laid and went off amazingly well. Charlotte taught me in her well-heeled but not fussy kitchen, and the boys played and played and played until it was time to eat what Charlotte had taught me to cook.

What did Charlotte teach me to cook?

Charlotte taught me to make fish cakes! You see, when I asked Charlotte to help me, I knew it would be a fishy kind of helping, because Charlotte is, with her husband Bruce, the owner of Stewart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett. So, fish cakes:

First of all we put a pot of water on, cut some potatoes into chunks and boiled them for about 15 minutes. These potatoes were destined to be mashed. Next, the fish. It was a little over a pound of haddock, and Charlotte explained that other kinds of mild fish would be OK, too (cod, halibut, flounder, fluke…). To cook the fish (and here I was on the edge of my seat, because Charlotte had a frying pan out, and I could see that I was about to learn to cook fish over an actual flame like the big kids), Charlotte heated olive oil and verjus (that’s a nonalcoholic white wine—I was embarrassed to ask, but now I know) then simmered the fish until it was ALL WHITE. And that was it!!!!! Cooked! But I was amazed and had to be sure, so I asked Charlotte if that was really all there was to cooking the fish, if the fish was really actually indeed cooked. She very kindly assured me that the fish was cooked. And then she paused and looked at me with a keen sort of look, a—let me get this straight—what exactly am I working with kind of look, and said “You really don’t know how to cook.” She was not at all challenging me and not at all shaming me—hers was sort of a question and sort of a statement, delivered with the level-headed, honestly interested quality for which I so admire Charlotte. “I really don’t,” is what I replied.

That was and is perfectly and unfortunately true, but her question did get me thinking: Will this condition persist forever, no matter how many individual dishes I learn to cook? Will I ever be able to extrapolate? What about the terrible day when I can no longer claim to be unable to cook because I know how to cook too many things, even if that knowledge is totally superficial and isolated dish to dish and I don’t feel like I know how to cook? Is there a difference between thinking you can’t cook and not, in fact, being able to cook? Is it possible to know how to cook without knowing it? What about the other terrible day when I am forced to admit that I have reached my potential and that it isn’t that I don’t know how to cook, it’s that I am not a good cook? Will I ultimately fall into the gap between information (knowing how to cook the dishes) and skill (cooking them with ease and style). Will I further tumble into the sink of artlessness—meal after meal of gloomy food weighing down the table, albeit undeniably cooked!

And finally, not to be alarmist, but what about my maternal grandmother, known by one and all including her grandchildren as Marge? Marge froze lettuce and drank hot water with nothing in it but a tablet of Sweet’N Low—she really, really could not cook in the sense that the food she prepared and served was as a rule almost completely inedible, but she believed, heart and soul, that her food was utterly delicious and would go on and on about its merits even though, when I think about it, the only things I can remember ever seeing her eat were dry melba toast and handfuls of the pastel-colored chocolate-covered mints they had in a silver bowl in the hallway near the powder room at her golf club in Cleveland, Ohio—mints she seduced my grandfather into filching by the sandwich baggie every time he went to the club for his Saturday foursome.

If I start thinking too much about Marge, provider of my perfectly-OK-with-the-cracker-only-diet gene, I will be frightened away from any more kitchen adventures on the basis of genetics. It is much more healthy to think of myself lining up behind my paternal grandmother, Lillian Harris, aka Gram. First of all, as of this writing, she is 100 years old. 100! She quit smoking in her 70s, kept a dish of hard candy in her den until recent years, and used to prefer popcorn (until it started to present a possible choking situation…) as a stand-in for dinner. Can she cook? Who knows! Can or cannot is hardly the issue: She doesn’t. I mean, it’s natural that she doesn’t now because she is 100 years old, but as far as I know, she never has. She doesn’t like to cook! And I’ve never heard her apologize for that fact, because Gram is Gram and she knows what she’s about. In my experience, when faced, for example, with company coming to her house, she calmly telephoned Leni and Corky’s, the deli down the street, and ordered a plate of cold cuts.

So, if ever there comes a day when I can no longer hide behind the prairie of my cooking ignorance, if ever there comes a day when I have to admit that I do, technically, sort of know how to cook, if ever there comes a day when I must come completely clean and make true kitchen confessions about why, after all this fuss, I am still not cooking, I will take a deep breath and square my shoulders and think of Gram and not stress about how much cooking stresses me out. I will not make a big deal. I will just go pop some popcorn.

But for now, no more not cooking! Onward! Let us return to my fun time with Charlotte:

Once the fish was cooked we moved it from the pan, then sautéed a yummy-looking mixture of celery and onion in that same pan until it was soft and very brown. After that, we washed and chopped a good fistful of parsley (it was Italian parsley—I asked—and we only used the leaves). Then we mashed the boiled potatoes whose destiny is was to be mashed, then combined them with the fish, parsley and onion and celery mixture. After that, we added this thing called Old Bay seasoning, which seemed very mysterious and fish-oriented, then some fresh pepper, and some salt. And after that two more things: one beaten egg and about a half a cup of breadcrumbs. We mixed it up. And then you know what happened? We put the whole thing in the fridge!’

Fifteen minutes later, we took it out and tried to make fish shapes. Charlotte’s turned out well, like platonic ideals of fish. Mine looked like punctuation. Cosmo and Dante came dashing over at this point, and shaped some fish cakes themselves. It got a little crazy with the fish-cake shaping and the hungry, shape happy boys. After a little while all the shapes that were going to be made were made and we pressed them into breadcrumbs on all the places of the shapes. Next we went back to the pan, tipped in some more olive oil and a little butter, and fried those fish cakes until they were brown and just totally nummy looking and tasting. Charlotte served the fish-shaped fish cakes to the boys on a bed of edamame (for an ocean) and a round slice of orange (for a sun). She flashed me one her smiles while doing this. “Fun food,” she said. The boys sat down and ate and I could already see that I was armed with the info for an actual meal.

Did I try the Fish Cakes on my own?

You bet your bootie I did! When we arrived home from the Sassos’ after the cooking lesson Cosmo said, “Mom, can I have a fish cake?” Since it was absolutely bedtime at that point and the time for fish cakes had passed, and in any case the fish cakes that were not in our bellies were at the Sassos’, I promised him fish cakes for the very next day.

So in the morning I woke up thinking fish cakes or bust! Here is what I did: I went to Stewart’s Seafood and bought every single thing I needed except the eggs, which we already had many of in the house. This, somehow—the shopping—was the main thing to be accomplished. Because the shopping is sometimes the worst of it. The shopping is sometimes what puts me over the edge, or rather keeps me from getting anywhere near the edgy landscape of cooking at all. But this shopping was fun and quick and at the end I got a huge smile from Charlotte, which is saying a lot because Charlotte is never stingy with smiles in the first place. Then, I went home and somehow made the fish cakes. This part is a blur because I became, suddenly, a person cooking dinner amidst multiple children needing things and the phone ringing…. At the end, when the fish cakes were just about finished, sitting there all browned and yummy waiting to be served, Hiroyuki came over and peered into the pan and said, ”It looks good, Evan.”

This attention just about made me blush, then we all sat down to eat.

Evan Harris writes, and sometimes cooks, in Springs.

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