Whatcha Got Cookin?
by Andy Griffin
Because sharing food is such an important way of sharing love, restaurants do big business on Valentine's Day. I'm not knocking anyone for spending a little money on a red rose and a white tablecloth but if you want a romantic memory that burns longer and hotter than a tea-light candle you might stay home and cook with your loved one. You say you can't cook? Love is a good reason to learn.
When I was fourteen and absolutely clueless I was deeply mired in love. The object of my admiration was a girl named Mitzi, also fourteen, but having just moved to the country from the big city she was a lot more worldly than I. Mitzi dreamed of being a big star and leaving the boonies far behind her. In front of the stove, inspired by stirring soup she would affect an ironic twang to her voice, start wagging her tail real slow and dish out a campy send up of Hank Williams. "Hey Good Lookin," Mitzi would sing into the long wooden spoon "Whatcha got cookin? How about cooking something up with me?" I wanted to cook something up with her but I didn't even know how to boil water.
We lived in the mountains to the south of Soledad, the middle of nowhere, and neighbors were few and far apart. Mitzi lived seven miles and two ridges over from me in a rambling old ranch house by a creek at the bottom of a deep canyon. Every Saturday, I'd ride my bicycle over to her house to visit. It was cold in the winter and to conserve energy her family would only heat one room of the house. We'd stay in there talking or playing records until lunchtime when we'd venture out into the chilly kitchen where Mitzi would prepare the two of us bowls of Top Ramen noodle soup. I was crazy about her and she liked me well enough to send me home one day with a strudel she baked from scratch following her grandmother's recipe. The strudel even got a rise out of my father. "Who is this girl?" he asked as he tasted the pastry.
The next weekend I was at a loss for a way to reciprocate because I couldn't cook anything. On my morning bike ride to Mitzi's house I stopped and gathered up a quantity of puffball mushrooms that I found growing in a pasture. Mitzi's mother showed us how to slice the puffballs in half and look at the interior architecture of the aromatic fungi to verify that they were edible types. Then she told us how to saute the mushrooms with just a pat of sweet butter over a low flame. At lunch we set to making ourselves a dish of puffballs to go with our noodle soup.
To this day the smell of mushrooms cooking in butter brings that morning back to me. The butter melts in the pan and I sense my friend beside me slicing puffballs. The mushrooms sizzle and I hear the lisp of her voice as she tells me to make sure that they don't burn. I spoon the mushrooms onto a plate and I see her gray-blue eyes looking at me through wire rimmed glasses from over a steaming bowl of soup. For a second I feel the chill of that kitchen and the warmth of the moment. I remember the glow of yellow daffodils blooming in the shady garden beyond the kitchen window and recall the silvery trail of a confused snail sliding in curlicues across the pane of glass.
That was twenty-eight years ago. When I think back on other meals that linger in my memory they were almost all cooked with friends. It is a rare restaurant that can prepare a meal that will stay warm a whole life long.
copyright 2002 Andy Griffin
Mitzi's parents were members of a Zen Buddhist community and they raised a little money by selling bowls of vegetarian chili to passers by. Since about the only people driving past their remote little roadside snack stand were cowboys or hunters on their way up to the national forest to blast doves, deer, pigeons, or quail the stage was set for an interesting interaction between the cultures of the four wheel drive and the four noble truths of the dharma wheel. What follows is a chili recipe that echoes the early seventies faux-carnivore style vegetarian offerings. My apologies to the original chefs if we've failed to authentically capture the recipe.
Serving Size : 6
1 lg Onion -- chopped
3 Garlic cloves -- crushed & chopped
2 Tablespoons vegetable or olive Oil
2 Celery ribs & or 1 fennel bulb -- diced
1 red or yellow pepper, chopped, optional
1 1/2 teaspoons Chili powder
1 t Cumin 1/2 ts Cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 can chopped Tomatoes
4 c Beans, kidney, black, pinto -and/or garbanzo -- cooked (canned or cooked at your house)
1/2 lb Tofu -- crumbled (optional)
1 1/2 ts Salt, or to taste
1 Tablespoon fresh Oregano, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried
Saute onion and garlic in oil until onion is soft. Add celery/fennel, chopped red pepper, and spices. Saute another 2-3 minutes. Add tomatoes. Mash 2 cups of the beans and add beans and tofu to the pot along with the salt and oregano. Simmer 30 minutes. To cook raw beans: Soak beans in water overnight, OR boil for 2 minutes and let sit, covered, for 1 hour. Bring to a boil in same water and simmer about 1 hour or until tender.