This guest post was written by my wife who happens to be an excellent cook and who seldom gets the credit she deserves.
The bookcase was easily six feet long, solid wood, sturdy enough to be a two-person job. But it was just me and a dog not too eager to hightail it back to the house for backup. A block and a half all-out sprint put me in front of my backup, but he was in front of the stove.
Greg had just added the cream to a vodka-cream sauce to finish the salmon. He couldn’t just take it off the heat and traipse off, he explained apologetically. The shelf would have to wait.
So I went it alone, hoisting it off the curb and over one shoulder. Two steps forward and … gasp. I made it back, finally, with the help of a pitying neighbor and the determination only a 25-year-old in desperate need of furniture can possess.
I salvaged the bookcase. Greg saved the meal.
It was the second birthday meal he had cooked for me and even then it was clear he took such occasions seriously — fresh ingredients, hours of preparation and planning. A marscapone icebox cheesecake with almond praline? No problem. Homemade ravioli? Whatever you want.
Once a year, I try to return the favor. It is a humbling endeavor, cooking for a cook. The same sort of feeling washes over me when I pick up his camera, I can’t do what he does, effortlessly, artfully.
What does one whip up for a man who stuffs his own sausage, fusses over smoke permeation and frets over whether he kneaded the ciabatta dough too long?
Each year I return to the basics, meat and potatoes. The results are as often humbling as they are heartening.
One year, I pulled decadent scalloped potatoes from the oven at precisely the right moment, only to char the portabellas in a balsamic demi-glace simmering away on the stove top. Another birthday dinner went off without a hitch, until I awoke in the throes of a migraine hours later and we both … revisited the meal.
This year I picked recipes – all from my go-to site Epicurious — that could be prepped ahead and would require minimal cooking time. Who can mess up a truffled potato puree? (I saw through the foodie jargon and realized puree was code for mashed.) They came out fine, but got cold as I waited for the porcini-crusted filet mignon to finish.
The asparagus was our own recipe, if one can call a spritz of lemon juice, a sprinkle of Romano and a drizzle of olive oil a recipe. But I left them in the oven too long, wilting them.
We started the meal with chilled Bloody Mary soup shots, an idea that seemed fresh two weeks earlier when I planned the menu not realizing snow would be falling outside as we ate.
The night before, I’d not so carefully deveined shrimp for skewers that accompanied the soup shots. I’d snaked the skewers around the olive pits – I used fancy olives instead of the pickled vegetables the recipe called for – thinking how romantic it is to have pits on one’s plate. I added a bit of clam juice to the soup and dusted the shrimp with Old Bay, my main adjustments to the recipe. And I saved the soup in the nick of time, or rather Greg, who wasn’t sure what I was making, did when he remarked on how much green onion I was blending. Oops, the recipe calls for two green onions, not two cups. Since, I’d used our entire supply of green onions I left those out of the herb butter for the steaks and would do so again. The fresh tarragon complemented the porcini and truffle oil in the potatoes perfectly.
The filet mignon was the meal’s star and a recipe I’d make again. Perhaps in 365 days.
Aside from his mother’s rum cake recipe, which I’ve tinkered with and skipped this year, I’ve never repeated a recipe for his birthday.
It’s probably better that way. He tends to do something new and inventive each year for my birthday, so it’s only right for me to try and fail again.
I’ve had one unqualified birthday success. We still have that bookshelf I rescued all those years ago.