Make Food Love

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
~ Harriet Van Horne

For the past few months, he has been cooking for me at home. Sunday was the day we had together, to linger over breakfast, croissants and tea, afternoons of luxurious kissing, and well, lovemaking. We'd enjoy romantic dinners in restaurants, and make love again. Food was always at the heart of our romance. Being greeted in the morning with a warm pastry box filled with a flaky guava and cream cheese pie was better than a bouquet of flowers. A cheese cart of French cheese after a glorious meal, messy fish tacos from a local stand next to a freeway, tea in the afternoon--- our courtship revolved around food, and we were like a fork and spoon.

But as our love blossomed, our food adventures opened the kitchen door to another sort of culinary tango. It began gradually, as we'd bring our farmers market selections home and spend the day cooking. The afternoons in the kitchen going well into dusk, then by evening, a beautiful meal. It's how we first began making love, the same pattern of afternoons fading into evenings, appetizers of kisses and main courses of pleasure, and dessert before being spooned against him in sleep. In the kitchen, we are the same passionate couple, creating pleasure, just like the act of love.

We celebrated a night of cooking together on New Year's Eve, with a roast chicken. I loved seeing him up to his elbows in butter, slathering the bird for its glorious finale into the oven. We had champagne, black lentils braised in red wine, potato celery root gratin, and pear hazelnut tart for dessert. It was then that I realized how sexy it was to watch him concentrate in the kitchen.

The surprise dinner that he made after a long day of work was a moment of joy. Coming home to chipotle quinoa and a salmon filet that may have been the best fish I'd ever tasted. I was truly elated beyond measure. How did this happen to me? I wondered, as the gift of his cooking and surprising me with it was heaven. I was moved by the thoughtfulness, the eagerness to please, the sensuous experience. Of course, he also enjoys cooking and I've come to prefer his to my own. The intimacy of two people in love sharing a kitchen, a small kitchen, that barely fits two, how the dance of cooking becomes another way to make love.

When we met nearly a year ago, we spent a weekend at a beachside condo that belongs to a friend of mine. The place was right on the shore with the view of the ocean from the balcony and bedroom. Its kitchen was supplied with basic cookware, so I brought a few pans and my cheap red chef's knife (which wasn't a very good one). But we were there, together. I was a bit nervous in a good way, feeling like a schoolgirl on a first date with a huge crush. Of course, I wasn't a schoolgirl and it wasn't our first date, but I had a huge crush on him most definitely and then some.

So I had decided to cook for him. Naturally I wanted to impress him with something marvelous. One dish I am confident in making is risotto. Really, I don't know why, but I am good with risotto. I made a wild mushroom risotto and a halibut for him that night and to my pleasure he enjoyed my cooking. I remember the look in his eyes, the response. That night we sat outside on the little patio listening to the sound of the rushing waves, feeling the cool ocean air on our skin, our table for two filled with halibut, risotto, glasses of wine. In the glimmer of candlelight I quietly noticed how much pleasure he took in eating the creamy risotto. With a smile, a taste from his plate, he caressed my thighs underneath my apron. It was a thrill that my cooking could inspire such ardor.

It was another time soon after that, at the same place on the beach, when he first cooked for me; sweet little shrimp so coral pink, divinely dressed in a mojito sauce of mint, cilantro, olive oil, a crisp and juicy array of watermelon, fresh from the cob corn, and cucumber. And I think that is where the passionate cooking began with this kitchen romance.

Something altogether inspiring comes over me when I watch him in the kitchen. I become the voyeur, with a hunger of many sorts as my body responds to the temperature of his delight in cooking. He is an alchemist stirring his pot and saucepan--- the aromas from spices and herbs fill the air, from the stove dishes appear, heavenly creations by spoon, ladle, whisk, pot and pan.

He seduces me with freshly chopped basil, mint, and cilantro, grated lemon zest and ginger, dashes of cinnamon, splashes of pomegranate juice. He tempts with maitake mushrooms, asparagus, with cumin seeds, blood oranges. He romances me with fresh produce and cheeses, with sauces and spice. Watching his slender and nimble fingers--- those hands that know the every curve and landscape of my body--- selecting more of this or that, stir, sauté and combine.

You bring me pears / the juice runs down your fingers / how long has it taken me to realize / that this is the place, these are the times / which, if one day there is a paradise / we will look back and say / yes, we drank a little of this wine / we tasted, yes, of this before 

I am enchanted by the man I love conjuring up a beautiful feast for dinner. What happiness it brings. Perhaps this is what fulfillment tastes like. Maybe requited love tastes just like homemade cooking. The yearning I felt as a young girl, that unnameable longing for love, for someone to feed my soul, my past melancholy answered with every taste, reminding of the times before when I dreamed of someone cooking for me like this. And what does one do when a dream comes true?

One night he made ricotta. After he finished the act of heating milk, adding lemon, pouring it off into a cheesecloth to strain, cooling, the ricotta was plated with fava beans, sliced radish and drizzled with olive oil. The dish was light and simple, and soon became irresistible. My fork fluffed up a bite of fresh ricotta to savor, flavorful with olive oil and salt, the crunch of radish, the fresh spring bite of fava beans. The ricotta tasted better the next day too. Delightful. Why don't we make it more often?

Among the other side dishes he created that night besides the ricotta with fava beans and radish, he made roasted beets and greens with Bûcherondin goat cheese. I cooked the main course that time. It was because he had challenged me to make a meat entrée that particular Sunday. Me, the vegetarian, although I don't receive credit for eating things like foie gras, oxtail, and an entire Scottish wood pigeon (squab, he says begrudgingly, with his eyebrow arched up, as if I never ate the entire small bird). The pigeon was decadent in its vin chaud varnish, earthy game served with lentils and chanterelles. I have eaten meats like slow cooked pork, chicken breast sous vide in spinach gremolata, and unknowingly at a friend's party, a hors d'oeuvre of spam. To my surprise, I liked it. Bacon, pancetta, prosciutto, ham, pork, spam. I've consumed these very non-vegetarian foods with hesitation, and then wonder.

I decided to make Moroccan lamb in a clay tagine to meet my challenge, served with saffron couscous. After an attempt to cut the fat from the raw lamb meat and make a stew, I became confident, then brave. This was my first time cutting meat and cooking it as a dish. While slow cooking a base of red onions into a slurry of spices, adding the most beautifully round, red tomatoes concassé, dashing in garbanzo beans to my tantalizing pot, I felt triumphant. He liked the Moroccan lamb, and I was pleased.

After a long office day, he traveled the freeway from downtown to my apartment, sneaking into the door with secret intentions of making pasta carbonara just before I arrived home with the kids. I received a text message while I was wearily driving the roads between schools and home in my messy, crumb-laden minivan, with my motley bunch of children picked up from their three different schools.

In the midst of traffic at a stop light, I noticed his text requesting frozen peas. I responded, why frozen peas when fresh are in season?

He answered mysteriously, for some other time.

But he was already in my kitchen, plotting his surprise dinner for all of us: Spaghetti Carbonara. 

That night he cooked for the family, he burned his hand on a hot pan, and I was thankful to have the frozen package of peas to soothe him. He eventually resorted to frozen containers of soup on his burned palm, and ate one-handed. To accent his magnificent pasta dish I heated up my homemade celeriac soup. No one ate it except me that night. Everyone wanted more pasta. Of course they did. My soup paled in comparison. What child, or adult for that matter, would want a bowl of earthy celeriac soup next to a wealth of spaghetti carbonara?

The kids enjoyed the spaghetti so much; my twelve year old son heaping noodles by the plateful with his fork and spoon, appreciating the richness of the egg yolk mixed into the creamy sauce, devouring it like a healthy growing boy. Dinners with children have been, and are, completely disordered, and tasting food as much as having a conversation is anything but consistent, nor is it a languid feasting on marvelous cuisine, and it has occurred to me that feeding the children dinner should come first, before he and I have our dinner. But then, the spaghetti carbonara was delicious enough to keep everyone's focus on eating, and I think more or less we all sat together and enjoyed it without interruption.

There was another night he cooked Spanish chicken and potato gratin while suffering with a migraine headache, and despite it, made a beautiful meal. The kids were so loud and boisterous that the downstairs neighbor complained, and I ruined the apple crisp.

I was so extremely exhausted that I peeled apples badly, lethargically, and cut them to bitty pieces, didn't make the crumble correctly, adding too much butter, not enough flour and sugar, and tossed it all into a paella pan. It over-baked and the paella pan reacted, turning the apples an ugly gray. Horrified at my mistake, I dumped the entire thing into the garbage, refusing to let anyone see the mess I made of a simple dessert. Don't apologize, I heard Julia Child say in my head, just don't apologize. But I did. It was just plain awful. There was no use in saving it. Gray apple goop, completely inedible. It wouldn't even make an ice cream topping.

I just shouldn't cook when I'm so bone deep tired.

I was melting with fatigue yet still mustering the strength to wash up the dishes. He was suffering with a terrible headache. I insisted that he rest. The kids were clamoring around the apartment, and the place smelled wonderful with the lingering scent of chicken, tomato, paprika and buttery potato gratin. Poor darling man of mine, terrible headache. And I couldn't even soothe him with the apple crisp.

I washed up the dishes and tended to him when I could. I tried massaging his feet for awhile, in between getting up to tend to the children. I put the Spanish chicken away in my Moroccan tagine, and it looked so pretty, as if it should have been baked inside of the clay pot.

The chicken had paprika, olives, tomatoes. He forgot to put crème fraîche in the potato gratin so it was very buttery. He grilled asparagus also, which I love. I ate spear after spear of asparagus with the buttered potatoes, drenched in the tomato sauce of Spanish chicken, because I can't resist potatoes drenched in butter or sauce, with or without crème fraîche, sour cream, or whatever other creamy-milky-saucy ingredient you put into it.

As a little girl I loved baked potatoes and what delicious discovery to dollop spoonfuls of sour cream into the hot center of a steaming baked potato. Cheese, sour cream, and butter. Potato gratin is just an excuse to eat all of those things, and a fancier way than a baked potato wrapped in foil. The French know cheese and butter better than any other culture, and good cheese is next to aphrodisiac than anything more exotic. Cheese can be seductive and pungent, and to combine that with the comfort of a potato is like the best sex I've ever had in a food version.

We have tasted fine French cheeses, and the best ones envelop all of your senses. Good cheese makes my eyes flutter and roll in pleasure. Inhaling the musk of cheese through your palate is as good as kissing your lover in various intimate places of their body, though I'm the sort that enjoys burying my nose into my darling's armpit. Cheese is as uniquely sensual as that sort of renifleur euphoria. Oh, I just love cheese.

I'll ask him again to make the potato gratin, this time with crème fraîche, or sour cream. The fine slices of potato by mandoline layered with cream, butter, and cheese, sprigs of thyme, seasoned with pepper and flakes of good salt is ambrosia. I made potato gratin on New Year's Eve to go with the roast chicken he made, but my potato gratin lacked finesse, made in a hurry, without much attention. We both try recipes and in the act of creating, learn what might work better. Potato gratin, done almost perfect, is still delicious.

For a few months now, he comes inside the apartment with bags and bags of produce, new kitchenware, and recipes in mind. Rainbow carrots with cinnamon and ginger in pomegranate juice. Salmon en papillote with chipotle quinoa with black beans and corn, roasted beets and greens, roasted Brussels sprouts in bacon, cauliflower with parmesan, mushroom risotto with asparagus and crème fraîche, orange salad with goat cheese, mint and cumin seeds, fresh peas in spices, coconut crab rice, shrimp in mint and cilantro, lemon curd, butterscotch budino, blueberry scones.

You bring me pears / and I take for a past or a coming poverty / from this munificence / from this store of happiness and wealth / So let the glisten of my lips / express my thankfulness (Mohja Kahf)

The Sunday of the Salt Crusted Fish and the Branzino in Black Bean Sauce began quite passionately.

He brought in the many bags of produce and items for the kitchen, like sheet pans and stainless steel bowls, a paring knife. We had a large amount of fresh spring peas. The lemon tandoori rice I made was already cozy in a Japanese donabe (clay pot). I was finishing up my carrot orange ginger soup in another clay pot, while preparing a miso butter sauce for asparagus.

Meanwhile, he whipped up lemon curd for the blueberry scones he was baking.

He then prepared the two fish for each of their dishes. We shelled the peas together outside on the patio. The striped bass was to be baked in a salt crust, and the branzino, such a beautiful fish, in a black bean sauce.

The striped bass was covered in salt. This is a recipe that goes back centuries. Easy to make. Salt was expensive at one time in history, so this was a recipe for the wealthy. The idea is simple and brings out the succulence of the fish.

The summer shrimp in mojito dressing with cucumber, watermelon and fresh corn he made last August was like the first time we made love--- still palpable, the feeling that overcame me. Love at first taste, nothing like it. My legs shook and tears streamed down my flushed cheeks from happiness. He made it with such beauty, such care.

The way he prepares a meal says so much.

Another afternoon, he created a coconut crab rice with toasted coconut, sprinkling in cumin spice, dousing it lovingly with coconut milk, stirring over the flame, cilantro feathered into the beautiful mixture of lime, crab, coriander, fragrant basmati rice, luscious red chili peppers and Scotch bonnet habanero chile.

Cooking is truly like love. You make mistakes, you try again, you discover new things you didn't know before, and sometimes you get it right the first time. You can ruin things by trying too hard. Sometimes it takes patience. It's also a lesson in letting go, of holding back when you want to overdo it. Letting go when you want to hold tightly. The wisdom of spices, the spontaneity of doing what you can with what's in the pantry. It expresses our emotions, cooking. Some flavors marry well as if they were meant to be together.

Human emotions are saturated with memories. Certain foods return to us those moments we only remember by sensory experience. Like Proust and the Madeleine, I remember moments of my life as I taste, and I'm thrown into reverie. It's also new and exciting when he surprises me with dishes. He and I have been the same for each other; a sense of familiarity mingled in with a new romance. But passion exudes its spice and our relationship transforms with another kind of communication--- the language of food.

We were invited to have brunch one Sunday. So we had eggs with foie gras Hollandaise and sweet things like French toast and pancakes, along with duck fat fries and other rich foods. I had too many glasses of rosé, which for me is two, and little else. I nibbled the fries, took a few bites of french toast, had a little of the poached egg in rich sauce. Afterward we took my littlest girl to the museum. It was becoming later in the afternoon and I was feeling chilled. We walked through the museum and let my daughter play out in the museum courtyard where they had an interactive installation. He watched her play as I went into one of the buildings to view the paintings. As I was inside the cool museum room standing in between a painting by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, my three year old daughter was spilling her apple juice all over the cafe table, soaking my darling's fedora hat with the juice, and the pastry box of sweets he bought for us to share. When I returned he was scowling, looking very annoyed. I noticed his fedora was tossed on the ground, and she was playing happily again, not wanting to leave the museum.

That early evening we drove back toward home, suddenly hungry. We decided to stop somewhere and eat. I imagined a steaming bowl of hearty soba noodles in a dark broth from one favorite Japanese restaurant, but instead we ended up choosing a different restaurant we once loved because we were close by. It was a disappointment. The restaurant had changed its menu for the worse, where spaghetti was the main choice. It was lacking in flavor, the plain noodles. We had ordered the grilled romaine lettuce which was the highlight of our dinner once before, and the reason why he had taken me to that restaurant the first time. But even the romaine lettuce had lost its former taste, and my spaghetti with mushrooms was mediocre.

I wasn't nourished. He wasn't either.

When we came home, I was feeling so tired. I mentioned rice pudding. Inspired, he went off to the market as I was cuddled up in blankets by the fireplace. When he came back, he was stirring a pot and making something that smelled wonderful in the kitchen. Rice pudding. Warm and creamy, satisfying to my soul.

I find that being fed by my lover is the closest thing to making love as food can get. Attentive as he is to my needs and likes, he knows what pleases me, and shows his affections through flavors and textures. He knows I love something creamy, like sauces and puddings. He makes dishes that he's always wanted to try, and it's like sex positions, where we discover something else that we like. But pudding, rice pudding, it is grounding, creamy, and a bowl of warm, sweet comfort. And he knows it is as good as cuddling to me. We ate the rice pudding snuggled under the blankets in bed. Embraced by his bowl of rice pudding, I felt better.

The night we went wild and got carried away in a hot culinary fervor was that night of the two fish. The spiced peas, Indian tandoori rice, asparagus in miso butter sauce, roasted beet salad with crostini and goat cheese, carrot orange ginger soup, the spicy black bean sauce for the branzino fish, the salt crust fish. Well, it was overwhelming all together. All of the exotic flavors, the spices. We almost couldn't eat when we were done. It was late at night by the time we sat down to the table, and we looked at each other with the heat of exhausted lovers.

Too much spice and food, we went to the bed and felt heavy, overly stimulated by the ginger in the soup, the array of spices, the Indian rice. The black bean sauce for the branzino carried an intensity that asked for plain rice, the asparagus was unnecessary, and everything crashed together. But the salt crusted fish was tender and melted in the mouth. It was well worth the effort. The branzino was beautiful. Both fish deserved less fanfare than we made. Next time, a simple rice.

The weekend of Mother's Day we hurried through the farmers market with my girls, as he was selecting the produce to cook for his mother that day. He was planning a feast of fish, chicken, the coconut rice with shrimp, and other things he had made for us before. He felt sure of himself and all of the meals we have cooked together helped him feel confident enough to cook for his entire family. But he wasn't sure if he was going to make the rainbow carrots for his feast. As we strolled through the produce stalls, there they were, rainbow carrots, a great amount of them, beautiful multi-colored roots. He sighed knowing he was going to make them after all, and opened his shopping bag, gathering bunches of carrots in his hands. He made the rainbow carrots in cinnamon, ginger, and pomegranate juice for the dinner and his mother, in particular, loved them.

When we cook together, we spend the afternoon preparing our dishes. We take time, experiment, and try things we've wanted to make. There are moments when we fail at something, and I know I've ruined dishes by either haste or experimentation. But even though I may be a passionate cook, I don't always make things that count as aphrodisiac. The love is in the making of it. Cooking is like painting and it's like making love. The abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock was once asked the question of how do you know when you have finished a painting? Pollock replied, how do you know when you are finished making love? Well there is some truth to that, but how it applies to a soufflé or a sauce depends on your gift of experience and intuition, and prowess is another matter.

Watching him cook in the kitchen is an aphrodisiac alone. Like love, the very act of his efforts speaks more than a library of recipes. When he presents me with a plateful of his cooking, it's better than a bouquet of roses. A forkful of joy, a spoonful of love.