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The Frying Pan and the Fire

I have never cooked anything that I was obliged to tie up. Soup pretty much isn't going anywhere and neither is spaghetti.
10/21/2006 02:13pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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While I have not yet withered and died of starvation, I'm not what anyone would call a great cook. Up until this point I owned one large pasta pot, a new-ish Teflon frying pan, and two small Goodwill sauce pans. Now, one birthday present later, I have a whole fleet of very shiny, expensive, stainless steel pots and pans. Pots and pans that aren't kidding around. Pots and pans that will outlive me. It's a lot of pressure, frankly. I feel they have high expectations. They seem to look at me reproachfully as I heat up cans of soup.

There is a recipe website I've been perusing since the pre-pan days. It's full of things that sound elegant and delicious. The narrative is always something like "I was wandering through the market one day when I saw figs. I couldn't help but think how divine they'd be with quail in a port reduction, so I made up this recipe." Apparently these people walk among us. If I see figs in the market I either think nothing at all or I think, "Oh look, figs." and then I continue on my way to the canned soup. But then, I suppose I should just be grateful that he writes these things down so that someday I can walk through the market with a highly detailed list clutched in my sweaty fingers, slavishly copying what was for him a burst of inspiration.

Many of the recipes seem to involve searing something on the stovetop and then whipping the entire pan into the oven. This previously struck me as madness, but I have since realized that the chef's pans probably didn't have plastic handles. Now, neither do mine. Clearly, I was out of excuses. It was time to actually cook something. Besides, I wanted to show my pans that I was worthy of them. I had the feeling that they might be in the cupboard saying unflattering things about me behind my back. I scrolled though the recipes and was distressed to see that many of them were seasonally inappropriate or involved alarming ingredients like dandelion wine or truffle oil. After dismissing these, I was left with two primary categories: things that must be stuffed and then tied up with twine or things that must be set on fire.

I have never cooked anything that I was obliged to tie up. Soup pretty much isn't going anywhere and neither is spaghetti. I'm not even too sure where to procure this oft-mentioned "butcher's twine." The whole thing scares me. There's a description of how you must begin by tying a loop at one end of the twine, which seems possible, but I'm shaky on the part where I'm meant to slip this loop over a big roll of raw meat. It strikes me as implausible. I foresee culinary disaster and, quite possibly, tears.

After consideration, I decided to go with coq au vin--clearly the most ambitious thing I'd ever attempted to prepare, and therefore pan-worthy, but also made up of ingredients I'd seen in real life. Sure, I'd never actually purchased pearl onions, but my mother had, so at least we'd been introduced. Dandelion wine, meanwhile, I've only encountered in fiction. What's more, these ingredients were apparently docile and in no need of restraint. As the recipes went, it was as good as it was going to get. I was a little disappointed that at no point would I be required to pull the pan off the burner and thrust it into the oven, but I thought I'd make up for that by what the recipe calmly referred to as "firing off the pan."

We will not discuss the fact that it took me half an hour to peel 14 pearl onions; nor that, only after very carefully pouring them one-by-one into my measuring cup, did I discover that another way of saying "four cups of wine" is to say "one bottle of wine;" nor that my pot wasn't really big enough to sear four chicken breasts; nor that I don't really know the definition of "sear." The time eventually came to add a quarter cup of brandy, after which I had fifteen minutes to steel myself for the inevitable.

Obviously, I don't know the author of these recipes. It's certainly possible that he lives in a small one-bedroom apartment with a galley kitchen that is approximately two yards away from the highly functional smoke detector, but somehow I doubt it. Anyone who stands around thinking about how nicely truffle oil and sweet vermouth would blend to make a steak sauce is probably someone with ample counters and a Wolf range. His recycling probably isn't wedged dangerously against the oven. His kitchen floor is probably not wooden. He probably owns a fire extinguisher. In fact, he and I don't really have all that much in common except for internet access.

As the fifteen minutes ticked by, I had the foresight to remove the numerous paper items that adorn the side of my refrigerator, which, with a certain cavalier attitude toward energy efficiency, is about two inches away from the stove. I removed a birthday card, a pizza coupon, a picture of Audrey Hepburn, the winter calendar for the local rep movie house, and the NPR weekend schedule. I wondered how I had avoided burning the building down prior to this point. I retrieved the trigger-activated candle lighter from the living room, opened the back door, turned on the fan and, tightly gripping the pot lid in my left hand, lest a hasty snuffing became necessary, I approached the simmering sauce.

I steeled myself and clicked the trigger. Of course, due to the accursed child-safety device, nothing happened. I began clicking in an agitated manner and forgot to be steeled. Therefore, when, with a whoosh I had only previously heard in movies when cars explode, the alcohol ignited, sending blue and orange flames two feet in the air, it took me by surprise. Or more precisely, it scared the hell out of me. I retreated, heart skittering around like mad, realizing by how flushed my face was that I'd been standing way too close to the pot and that I was lucky my hair was not on fire. My hands did not stop shaking for ten minutes, but I didn't drop the lid. I opened the cupboard so the other pots could see. "That's right," I told them. "I just fired off a pan and don't you forget it." They were humbled. Now that I've gained their respect, we're all feeling a little more comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that all the raw meat in the area better look out--twine is on the way.

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