One Dad’s Kitchen Secrets: Revealed!

March 6th, 2012  |  by  |  Published in Health and (Un) Safety  |  4 Comments

Part of last summer's megabatch of corn chowder.

“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.


  1. Dakota says:

    March 6th, 2012at 12:44 pm(#)

    Loved this piece Matt. We found ourselves exhaustedly making a fried rice last night after a long weekend. I dont know if I could make that one healthier but it was Mark Bittmans recipe of crisped garlic and ginger from Jean-Georges and it was fast and delicious and adaptable to almost any kitchen sink leftovers. but your recipes sound far more creative! Has Sasha always been picky or is that recent? Is iy difficult to get her healthy kids meals in NY restaurants?

  2. Stephen Gross via Facebook says:

    March 6th, 2012at 1:03 pm(#)

    Very interesting. Can you take leftovers from one cuisine and turn them into a different one?

  3. Matt says:

    March 6th, 2012at 2:29 pm(#)

    I will try. I have some leftover stir-fried cabbage that I may convert into borscht. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  4. FreeRange Pamela says:

    March 6th, 2012at 3:58 pm(#)

    Yes, so true. For all parents cooking on a regular basis, it’s about consistency and performance day-in and day-out. I remember back in the day when I would want to cook, I would go out and buy ingredients. Now, I’m generally ready to go at any time — I stock the pantry, freezer, and fridge in a way that allows me to “whip up” any number of things on any given night.

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