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Vanessa Selbst

Kitchen Range Merge

People are always surprised to hear that one of my passions is cooking. I don’t know why that is. I’m not sure if it’s because cooking is seen as a traditionally feminine thing, but for some reason, people (especially poker players) are always surprised when I wake up early to start dicing tomatoes and chopping basil to make them an omelet for breakfast. Cooking makes sense for me because it’s a good combination of creativity and math. I get to try out new things based on flavor instincts, and it also uses math instincts in terms of feeling out proportions. In fact, my secret fantasy is to go to culinary school.

Although I don’t get to cook as much when I’m on the road, whenever I’m home, I’m looking for new recipes, shopping for fun ingredients, and inviting company over for a good meal. Cooking for other people is also partly about making other people happy. I love standing at my kitchen island, chopping and preparing while people sit hang out on bar stools, drinking wine and laughing. People always come together over food.

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I first tried my hand at cooking during my freshman year of college. I shared a suite that had a small kitchen and I had a roommate that was really into experimenting with cooking. We would concoct these elaborate menus in our tiny kitchen, and seven or eight friends would eat it together, sitting on our dorm room floor as there wasn’t room to sit anywhere else. Those dinner parties were so much fun – we would go to the market and just get anything that looked cool. We figured, how hard could it be? If you can read a recipe, you can cook, right?

In theory this is true, but it didn’t always work out that way. One time, we tried to make calamari and it all went horribly wrong. There were just pools and pools of ink everywhere. By far, though, my most epic fail was trying to replicate this dish called “oysters and pearls” from a New York restaurant called Per Se. I should have known it would be difficult when I looked at the recipe, even though it called for relatively few (yet expensive) ingredients. One line of the instructions read “The finished sabayon will have thickened and lightened, the foam will have subsided, and the sabayon will hold a ribbon when it falls from the whisk” (epicurious.com). What in the world is a sabayon? I can’t even pronounce it! I needed a dictionary just to decode the recipe. I can’t even tell you how disgusting it was. It was a small, expensive bowl of grossness. To this day, this remains my dark horse.

You have to allow yourself to take risks with cooking and not be afraid of the failures. Each time I try a new recipe that’s completely different, I prepare myself to fail, but it often turns out pretty well, and if it doesn’t, I usually know how to fix it for the next time. I’m willing to try anything out at least once. Some of my culinary ventures that turned out particularly well are beef bourguignon, chicken puttanesca, thai green curry, pizza with a cauliflower crust, cioppino, grilled stuffed jalapeƱos, and flourless chocolate cake.

I’m also a sucker for anything that can be grilled. I’ve been known to grill tequila lime fish kebabs after dark by the light of the headlamp I bought for camping.

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Today, Miranda and I are having a sushi and board game party, which is somewhat of a tradition in my family. I went to Little Tokyo and bought all sorts of fun ingredients–really fresh fish, uni, ikura, sushi rice, avocado, wasabi paste. For non-sushi lovers, I’m trying out a recipe I found for agedashi tofu, which is basically just lightly fried, cubed tofu in a soy sauce broth, toped with green onions, radish, and a little bit of ginger. I’ve chopped everything and laid it all out on colorful platters next to sushi rolling mats. My friends and I will drink sake, roll our own sushi, play board games, and have green tea mochi for dessert. This is my idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon.

I love everything about cooking: the creativity, the artfulness, the thoughtfulness, the experimentation, the socializing…

The cleaning, on the other hand…

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