In this crazy pandemic world, there is only one place where I feel completely in control, and that is in the kitchen. I was trained as a pastry chef and baker but over the years I am fortunate to have honed my culinary skills as well. Simply put, I know my way around the kitchen. But for the past few months, I have had a hard time finding my way back there.
I was still “making food” for my family. I was going through the motions of putting food on the table without any real passion or zest for what I was throwing together. Maybe my family did not notice, but something inside me did. Today was different. I was drawn to the kitchen. A little voice inside me was telling me that I had to get back into that space where the magic happens. I obeyed.
I had been planning to make Ina Garten’s Salmon Cake recipe for days. The cans of salmon (she uses fresh) and the recipe had been on the kitchen counter collecting dust. I must have needed the solitude of an empty house in order to generate the right conditions for culinary flow. I jumped in.
I could dice an onion in my sleep. I slice off the ends, then I cut it in half. I peel off the outer skin from both halves, place the first half flat side down on the cutting board and make horizontal cuts equal to the size of the dice I am aiming for. I then slice it vertically until I am left with that last piece that was holding it all together, and I finish off that last bit. That is my system. You’re welcome.
I have tried to teach my husband my onion cutting technique but he refuses to participate. He prefers to grab a steak knife and attack the poor bulb, cutting slices and then cutting those slices into smaller and smaller pieces. His method might be as therapeutic for him as mine is for me but it is really painful to watch.
Mise en Place
I can be a machine in the kitchen. Sometimes I just want to Get.It.Done. I hurry the process, heating the butter or oil and then chopping the veggies, throwing them into the pan as they are cut. Today, I am a chef. I am all about mise en place. I begin by chopping all of my vegetables first. Then, when they are all ready and waiting, I will heat the fat and add them as an ensemble to the pan.
The care I am taking preparing this meal reminds of my catering days. Back then people were paying for the food I made. I wanted every bite to be perfect. I would cut the ribs out of each piece of romaine lettuce. When I made Martha Stewart’s Mini Orange Muffin recipe, I would pick through the raisins by hand, making sure to remove the stems.
I consider myself to be a pescatarian, the closest I can comfortably get right now to being a vegetarian. I like to think I am somewhat virtuous in that I am eating only one species of animal, wild caught fish, one whose production has a lower impact on the environment than say, beef or chicken.
The last time I made this recipe I used leftovers from a cooked side of salmon.Canned salmon contains cartilage and soft, tiny bones that are there to remind you that this was once an animal with fins, gills, muscle and a spine. I pick out the tiny shards vowing to make another run at the vegetarian lifestyle. That said, during a pandemic, you use what you have got.
This recipe is beautiful to create. I chop the celery, then the parsley, the capers, the red and yellow bell peppers, and I start on the first red onion. I am using my patented onion chopping technique and I am in the zone. I lose myself as I chop, loving the varied colors of the diced vegetables in their little bowls, just waiting for the rest of their friends to be diced before they hit the fire.
By the second onion, my eyes are starting to water. I do not employ any tricks to reduce the sting of the onions on my eyes. I do not wear safety goggles or freeze the onions first. I just face it head on. I embrace it. But the tears from cutting the onion soon give way to real tears, not the crocodile variety.
I sigh, put down the knife and think about the things that I have lost since the world changed in March, most importantly my best friend, Tim. He loved good food so much, I wish he were here to enjoy what I am creating. I would end the meal with something sweet and his favorite, a glass of milk.
The salmon cakes were a hit. I served them with lemon wedges and chipotle mayo. I then made a note to Self: The next time you make salmon cakes, have tissues handy. For the onions, of course.