for me, growing up in edmonton in the '70s and '80s, food was a source of aspiration - aspiration to adulthood, to wealth, to sophistication. my image of being a self-realized grown-up was precise. the city was toronto, the season was winter, and the partner was mark. i saw myself coming home from an exciting day as an academic (i had no idea what graduate school actually involved, how infrequently you'd actually leave the house, but never mind) to a 1920s apartment building with thick white paint peeling off the door, which opens to billows of steam: mark is making pasta. the sound of cello and the aroma of tomatoes, garlic and basil envelop me in a reassuring cloud of insulating cosmopolitanism.
while waiting for high school to end and this magical adult moment to arrive, i would visit the food floor at woodward's on breaks from selling men's shoes on main. the woodward's food floor is the first place i saw a delicatessen-style counter. they are commonplace now, whether genuine or merchandising tricks flogging saputo as local, repackaging maple leaf to look artisanal, but in 1983 the woodward's food floor was where white people learned to browse exotic cheeses. i embarrassed myself mightily by asking for "gorGONzola," but i forgot all about that when i cooked it with real mushrooms (real mushrooms!) in a four-cheese sauce. i served it over fresh pasta, another revelation (it was the '80s); the recipe came from the silver palate cookbook before julee rosso and sheila lukins, those indefatigable manhattan purveyors of whimsy and excess ('fly to another city for lunch!,' 'use a round of stilton for a striking centrepiece!,' 'for your next tailgate party, hire a hot air balloon!') parted ways. my mother's 40th birthday was that year, i believe, and we took her to avanti, a white-tile nouveau italian restaurant with crisp cobalt trim.
i thought i would eat like that forever. truth be told, i did pretty well in graduate school, something about living within walking distance of an organic grocery and downstairs from a landlord who liked to try out his recipes - croque en bouche, saffron-scented pilaf, four-course tuscan feasts - on a willing party. but cooking with a full-time job seemed beyond me. by the end of the 90s, mo and i had descended into a four-dish rotation with seasonal variations: lentil soup, stir-fried vegetables with tofu, shepherd's pie, beef stew in the winter; caesar salad, hamburgers, green salad with apples and cheese, steaks in the summer.
one day, i reached my limit. i simply couldn't face another lentil soup, so i set out to expand our range of foods. i learned my way through categories like root vegetables, pork chops, grains. turns out i do like butternut squash, don't like acorn squash, and now i know how to make a beet palatable, something i thought improbable. (best use of a beet: raw, in a salad with granny smith apples, mild feta and fresh mint under a lemony white balsamic vinaigrette.)
we've done well enough that a typical weekday meal here now involves 2 or 3 different vegetables alongside an interesting protein dish. turkey scallopini in mustard cream served over brown rice and sauteed spinach is a staple chez nous. we eat red peppers almost daily. last wednesday we had moroccan chicken (gourmet magazine cookbook), pomegranate-glazed carrots (fine cooking #101), asparagus spears in orange-tamari marinade sprinkled with candied ginger (something i made up) along with a simple nutted couscous. we also like to roast things, as in tuesday's dinner: portobello "chick'n" lumps (from the frozen food section), matchsticked parsnips and carrots with thyme butter, sweet potatoes with rosemary and garlic, tricolor peppers finished with feta and balsamic. it's a simple meal - it all goes in the oven - but thrills the eyes and mouth. it's more than i thought you could ask of a tuesday.
this is how you can live when you don't have children - and perhaps when you do, though i can't fathom how you'd manage it. i have become so habituated to this style of cooking and eating that i have forgotten how to do things differently. as a result, i feel quite panicky about not being able to cook post-surgery. i'm trying to store up some things ahead of time - chicken with pumpkin seeds, carrot ginger soup (good for nausea, i'm thinking), spinach bechamel lasagna, black bean soup, lentils - but with cookbooks tacitly subtitled either "make it tonight with what's just off the vine" or "how to devote 18 hours to a ganache," i'm finding it hard to think of things you'd make in advance and cook from ... the freezer.
i suppose i'll think of it as just another constraint - like cooking without leeks-onions-scallions-shallots, or figuring out how to use all the broccoli and bananas we get from our grocery delivery service each week. i enjoy the challenge of cooking-with-constraints and have long thought that a better version of iron chef would be teflon mama: "you have 45 minutes to feed four hungry people. the fridge/freezer contains two kinds of mustard, half a jar of pickles, a few sun-dried tomatoes, a cup of milk, two tablespoons of raspberry jam, three wizened carrots and a chicken breast. go!"
suggestions would be welcome.