“What’s your signature dish?” my friend Michael asked me yesterday evening. It was close to 7 p.m., and our kids, Sasha and Katerina, were playing together in Sasha’s room. These post-preschool playdates take place once every couple of weeks, when Sasha asks if Katerina can come over, or vice-versa. It’s cute to watch them play together, and we adults get the chance to have a drink and pretend to have a sophisticated conversation.
Often, I cook dinner for all of us. Once I whipped up some Taiwanese lu rou fan, which Katerina seemed to love. Another time, I seared a duck breast, made a salad, sautéed some green beans; Michael seemed impressed. Last night, when Michael asked his question, I had a Moroccan tagine of lamb, carrots, and turnips braising in the oven, and a salad with Sumo oranges waiting to be assembled. You know, the usual.
Of course, I don’t just cook for guests, and as I guess the above paragraph makes clear, I don’t just cook one thing. Sichuan, Korean, Indian, New England—these are on our menus as often as anything else. And god, I’ve made a lot of quasi-bolognese sauce in my time: It’s a standby that’s as delicious for adults as it is for kids. (If anyone wants recipes, let me know.) And Sasha, who doesn’t always appreciate my cooking, will almost always eat noodles and red sauce; it’s even better when we eat it all together as a family.
But back to Michael’s question: My signature dish? “Ask Jean,” I told him, for lack of anything better to say. My cooking is pretty good, though hardly chef-quality, and there was no standout dish that came to mind.
Later, though, when I was stuffed with lamb and couscous, and sipping a nice apricot edelbrand (yes, I am a loathsome yuppie motherfucker, aren’t I?), I figured it out. My signature dish is this: I can consistently put together meals for my wife (and sometimes my daughter) that are balanced, healthy, and tasty—and that aren’t the exact same thing every night. And I can make most of these meals in the span of an hour or so, and without using up too many dishes in the production. (It’s true, Jean, admit it!) In the way-too-busy life of a typical New York family, that’s far more valuable, I think, than any hifalutin gourmet pretensions.
And I wonder, too, if this is another distinction between the lives of single people and married (with children) people. Single people, or younger couples, don’t have to deal with the prospect of day-in-day-out cooking, possibly on a budget, so they can focus on once-in-a-lifetime epic dinners, or work tirelessly to perfect that one signature dish. (This was what was so amazing about the Julie-Julia Project—that it tried to meld the two approaches.) To someone like me (and possibly you), those over-the-top productions feel increasingly like a waste of time and energy. Not that we don’t miss them, or appreciate them on occasion, but consistency and efficiency matter more now. And if we don’t have to sacrifice taste, then that’s something really special.
Tonight’s special, however, is leftovers.