We could not have been luckier to find Ali, our current babysitter who comes twice a week in the afternoons while I attempt to piece together a freelance career. Beyond the fact that Ali has a clean driving record, always shows up on time, texts me with we’re-at-piano status updates all day long (no such thing as TMI in my house), and is generally great with the girls, she is from a family of professional educators and she herself is a student, getting her masters in special education. If homework hour with her at the helm is any indication, she is well on her way to graduating summa cum laude.
But here’s where my luck is ratcheted up to I-won-the-lottery levels: She is in her 20s and wants to learn how to cook! Well, at least I think she wants to learn how to cook. It’s also entirely possible that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with cooking and is merely humoring me because what choice does she have when her new employer a) leaves the Jim Lahey pizza crust recipe for her to assemble on her first day of work b) gives her a box set of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks for a holiday gift and c) thrusts a Dinner: A Love Story galley in her backpack with the instructions that I need her feedback — good and bad — immediately.
Whether she wants to learn or not, she’s proving to be as good a student as she is a homework tutor. She mastered that life-changing Lahey crust on her first try. After the holiday she reported back with praise for Ina Garten, in particular the super simple zucchini with Parmesan recipe in Barefoot Contessa: Family Style. And — always the hallmark of a star student — she asks a lot of questions. Like: Is it OK to use parsley in guacamole instead of cilantro since they look so similar? (Not OK) Or: If I want to make sugar cookies, do I just leave out the chocolate chips in my chocolate chip cookie recipe? (No.) And, perhaps my favorite, the answer to which she figured out on her own: Is it OK if I use an American oven instead of a Dutch Oven called for in so many of the recipes in the DALS book?
I can write this without feeling mean because all of these questions are exactly the kind of questions I asked when I was her age, when I wouldn’t have ever been able to identify a Dutch Oven; when I bypassed recipes in my Silver Palate because they called for an exotic ingredient called chicken stock; When I went to Chanterelle in downtown Manhattan and almost ordered sweetbreads thinking they were some form of glazed pastries.
My Uncle Mike, a loyal reader of this blog (as well as a recipient of a 2011 Dolly Award), emailed Andy and me last week to tell us a story about how, back in the early 80s, when he was teaching himself how to cook, he decided to make a whole fish with coriander from his brand new Time-Life Middle Eastern cookbook. For a dinner party. “Of course, I had no idea that there was such a thing as fresh coriander/cilantro,” he wrote. “Not even sure I could have found it then, but the recipe called for a cup of coriander. So I went out and bought three bottles of dried coriander leaves and used it on top of the fish while it cooked.” No one at the dinner party commented. “Maybe they didn’t know better, and since the fish was not skinned, you could kinda push the mass away with the skin, but still a frightening memory.”
I could hear stories about these frightening memories all day long, and in the interest of teaching Ali the most important lesson — that you can only learn how to cook by actually cooking, even if it means you feel lost or screw up every now and then — how about you guys share a few?