(From the archives)
About a decade ago, I decided that it would be a heartfelt gesture to cook Mike, my then boyfriend, a delicious meal of yummy comfort food. I was in a kitchen of our very own, there was a saucepan in hand, and I was wearing an apron. Having the necessary equipment and dressing the part was half the battle, I decided. So what if I had recently asked my mother “At what temperature do you boil water?”
“Nic, you cannot screw up chili,” my mom assured me through the phone as I began combing over her instructions, which I had transcribed word for word. (i.e. 1. Mush up meat 2. Throw stuff in pot, 3. Brown meat, etc.)
“Mike is going to be so happy when he sees what I have done for him,” I told her, smiling at the thought of my boyfriend entering the apartment with delicious smells wafting through the air.
“I’ll bet,” she said, and then whispered to my dad that she hoped Mike knew the number for Poison Control.
I began gathering together all of the necessary tools – saucepan, large spoon, Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection”, and a glass of wine – and then got down to business.
I mixed together the chopped meat, beans, chili powder, and tomatoes. After what seemed like more time than necessary, the chili just didn’t seem to be taking on the consistency that I had anticipated. The pan looked like it was filled with brown sludge.
I decided that I, being new at this, would have to put aside my pride, and ask my mother when my delicious home cooked chili would actually begin to look like delicious home cooked chili. I reluctantly dialed the parents, daintily took another sip of chardonnay and after further inquiry confirmed that we do indeed have a fire extinguisher. My dad then passed the phone to my instructor, who asked, “What now?”
“I think that you missed a step in the instructions,” I said indignantly, as I looked at my very first recipe card, which had been perfectly decorated and placed in my new, vintage recipe box.
“That’s not possible,” my mother (a.ka. Ms. Perfect) replied. “This isn’t complicated enough to ‘miss a step’,” she added, clearly implying that I was the one missing a step.
“Well, mother, this just doesn’t look like chili.” Boy, I’m asking my grandmother for a recipe next time I thought, and peered into the bubbling brown liquid.
“What does it look like?,” my mom asked.
“Uh, use your imagination,” I answered.
“Ugh. Well, did you brown the meat?,” Mom asked.
“No, I bought green meat, Mom. Of course the meat is brown. I might not cook that often, but my shopping skills have been finely honed.”
“No, did you brown the meat?,” she shrieked.
“What are you talking about?,” I yelled with exasperation and took a large swig from the wine bottle, which I believe should be on the “Tools You Will Need” list in every recipe. “I just said…”
Still cackling, my mom got off the phone to call my grandmother and tell her about my latest misadventure.
“Ha, ha, ha – brown the meat,” I mimicked to myself, spooning a bit of the brown stuff. I felt like Amelia Bedelia. You know, Amelia would be playing baseball and they would tell her to run home and she would actually run to her home.
I was now slamming cabinets, swigging wine, throwing extra beans in the pan in order to thicken the stuff. So, while I was planning to stunningly and seductively serve my boyfriend a bowl of home cooked love, I was tear-stained, drunk, and mumbling curses, while stirring poop. I had even taken off my sexy shoes in order to stamp around the kitchen in fits of Martha-less malaise.
I heard a door slam and a huff of work-related exasperation and I knew that my equally miserable counterpart had arrived home.
“I made you dinner,” I sang into the living room when my boyfriend had plopped into a chair in order to be with his remote.
“You did?,” he said, not attempting to veil his surprise.
“Well, I sort of misunderstood one part of the recipe, but it should be fine,” I lied. “Anyway, don’t you think it’s sweet of me to make you comfort food?,” I asked, batting my eyelashes and waiting for a peck on the cheek as he entered the kitchen. As it turns out, I was dead wrong about two things that night.
“What is that?,” he asked scrunching his nose in disgust.
“Chili to cheer you up,” I chirped, attempting to hold back another rush of tears.
“Where is the meat? Why is it liquid?,” he asked. Apparently, serving your boyfriend food that can pass for sewage does not make him happy, no matter that it was a gesture of love.
Then, he did the unthinkable. He picked up the sauce spoon, my sauce spoon, and began giving me instructions. No one, especially a man, tells me I’m wrong – and one that can’t cook either! He thought he was miserable at work – I’ll show him miserable!
“Forget it!” I said, now actually crying for affect. Boy was he gonna pay. My mom wouldn’t think I was stupid now.
“I’m going to eat the chili!,” he replied. “I don’t like to waste.” He was going to be a martyr. Eating the food would prove that he puts himself in jeopardy for my inadequacies, including recycling. If I learned one thing from the women in my family, it’s the affectation of martyrdom – and eating bad chili ain’t it.
“I’m ordering Vietnamese,” I yelled dramatically, grabbing for the phone. This had become a battle of wills. No one gets to play the martyr but me. I spent my evening slaving over a hot stove for the man I loved, and the prima donna was going to force me to order him take-out? He was going to eat his words and the chili too.
“I’m eating the chili,” he called out, force-feeding spoonfuls of muck into his mouth, silently pleading that I wouldn’t place the order. He knew that with one delivery from Saigon Grill, I could hold this over his head forever. Just the site of a Julia Child’s rerun ten years from now would be enough of a reminder that I had ammunition. “Remember the night I put my heart and soul into a home-cooked meal for you and you ate Number 78 Bun Xao Chicken instead?”
Through trial and error, I learned two things that evening. The obvious lesson on browning meat was the first test towards competence in the kitchen, but didn’t compare to the greater message. The real coup was realizing that I already was a domestic goddess. I managed to spin a bowl of crappy chili, which was intended to take my boyfriend’s mind off of a bad day, into a symbol of my own sacrifice, hard work, and time, coupled with his obvious lack of appreciation for my continued selflessness.
At that moment, I knew I was going to make a great wife.
It's been many years since that first attempt at bolognese. Since then, I've worked out a few of the original kinks, like not giving Mike food poisoning. Now that I've had quite a bit of practice, Ina Garten's recipe for Bolognese is my Sunday night favorite. Ironically, she calls it "Weeknight Bolognese," but I think it's worth serving any day of the week.
Here it is...Just don't forget to brown the meat. Wink, wink.
INA GARTEN'S RECIPE FOR "WEEKNIGHT BOLOGNESE"
From the Barefoot Contessa: How Easy is That?, 2010
2 Tbsps good olive oil, plus extra to cook the pasta
1 lb lean ground sirloin
4 tsp minced garlic (4 cloves)
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/4 cups dried red wine divided
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, preferable San Marzano
2 Tbsp tomato paste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 lb dried pasta
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ground sirloin and cook, crumbling the meat with a wooden spoon, for 5 to 7 minutes, until the meat has lost its pink color and has started to brown. Stir in the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes and cook for 1 more minute. Pour 1 cup of the wine into the skillet and stir to scrape up any browned bits. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper, stirring until combined. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a tablespoon of salt, a splash of oil, and the pasta, and cook according to the directions on the box.
While the pasta cooks, finish the sauce. Add the nutmeg, basil, cream, and the remaining 1/4 cup wine to the sauce and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened. When the pasta is cooked, drain and pour into a large serving bowl. Add the sauce and 1/2 cup Parmesan and toss well. Serve hot with Parmesan on the side.