I wish I could tell you that the last meal cooked in the first Smitten Kitchen was a triumph, a fitting coda to four-plus years in a sun-drenched Manhattan kitchen with enough space to put everything away (not that I’m pointing fingers or anything, new kitchen) and space enough for two people (and at least one growing midsection) to settle comfortably within it. Alas, that was not the case.
I am a master of finding reasons not to do things. Why I shouldn’t make a new pound cake, when I already have recipes I like. Why there’s no reason to ever roast a chicken another way. And in this case, why I shouldn’t bother making empanadas when I already have the most delicious, flawless empanada recipe ever made. (And, apparently, the moxy to boast about it.)
Sometimes, I don’t know me at all.
You see, one of the less-discussed factors in my cooking life on this site is the one I most like to keep a secret: I am incredibly picky. The list of foods I don’t want to eat is miles long. People like me have to learn to cook, it’s the only thing saving us from a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And well, barely that recently, while we’re being honest and stuff.
Nearly two years ago, when I was a sprightly young thing who planned elaborate birthday weekends for myself, Alex and I went to The Little Owl to celebrate, an infinitesimally small and adorable restaurant in the West Village that has an Italian/New American thing going on. Never ones to study up on a restaurant before going, we simply ordered whatever sounded good (in fact, I tried unsuccessfully to replicate my fideos appetizer at home) which went really well until we told people what we’d eaten the next day and they near-universally gasped “You didn’t have the meatball sliders?”
I have been promising you my mother-in-law’s recipe for stuffed cabbage or “golubtsy”, which was her mother’s recipe for stuffed cabbage, for ages but do you know what is even sadder about how long it has taken me to get to this? That if I remember correctly, I jotted this recipe down on a page from my planner (a planner! with pages in it! many moons ago, my friends.) while sitting in the back seat as we drove to check out some wedding locations. Alex and I got married in 2005.
[Braised Beef Short Ribs with Potato Purée, Swiss Chard and Horseradish Cream]
The first time I made short ribs, I freaked out. Lifting their lid after a multi-hour braise just as our guests arrived for dinner, I discovered a mess. “The bones fell out! Help! Did I ruin them?” I cried just as my mother walked into the kitchen, and because she’d never made short ribs before said “I don’t know, maybe?” But then Alex’s mother swooped in and said “That’s a good thing!”
I don’t think I need to tell you that sometimes the tastiest food is not the prettiest. Take a real close look at meat sauce, or shiny, oily cheese draped over tuna or a ground up olive paste and you’ll know why it may be tasty, but it’s not pretty. Meanwhile, I am wary of too-pretty food; perfectly smoothed fondant lids on cakes, making them look like rubber, overly glazed tartlets that look like they’re cellophaned.