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Carroll: Releasing her inner Emeril

Meredith C. Carroll
Summit County, CO Colorado

My family is in town this week, which means one thing (well, two if you count the inevitability that my dad will complain incessantly about how he and my mom never go to the movies): I feel compelled to cook.

I’m never really sure why I want to cook for my family. My aunt could cook Rachael Ray under a table in well under 30 minutes, my mom stuffs veal breasts like she’s vying for the Iron Chef title and my sister knows how to caramelize things. How do I compete with that?

Upon moving into Manhattan after graduating from college, I felt so grown-up and sophisticated that I asked my family over for a dinner party. Unfortunately, though, I overlooked something prior to issuing the invitations. At 208 square feet, there wasn’t a whole lot of space in my studio apartment even when I was there alone. So add my parents, my sister and her husband and subtract about 70 square feet for the bathroom, entryway and hallway and all that remained was 27.6 square feet per person (and that figure doesn’t take into account any of the apartment’s furniture).

The part of the apartment that took up the least amount of space was the kitchen, or the kitchenette, as it’s known in small Manhattan apartment-speak. I took to calling mine the kitchenette-ette since it was just that much tinier. It had two small electric burners, a sink more compact than the one in the bathroom, no counter or oven and a college-size refrigerator that either refrigerated or froze ” it was entirely incapable of doing both at the same time.

So naturally I chose to prepare the most complicated dish from my only cookbook ” the Williams-Sonoma Beans and Rice cookbook: a ragout of lentils, turkey meatballs and mint. The recipe called for an awful lot of chopping for someone lacking a counter, cutting board and sharp knife. (All of my pots, plates and utensils were inherited from my brother-in-law, who had held onto them from his college days. When he moved in with my sister, she rejected his kitchenware at the front door.) It wasn’t easy dicing carrots, onions and garlic with a butter knife on a glass coffee table. But I managed.

The trickiest part of the meal, though, was preheating the oven to 350 degrees. Particularly since I didn’t have an oven. So I preheated my hand-me-down toaster oven that measured about 5 inches deep by 18 inches wide. The recipe called for 24 turkey meatballs, which took me seven hours to toast in batches of four and another six hours to simmer on the stove. (Having only ever experienced gas ranges, I hadn’t a clue that the ceramic covers on the electric burners were merely decoration and meant to be removed prior to heating. That slowed down the cooking process considerably.)

My parents sat on the futon couch, my sister got the chair and my brother-in-law took the bed. I ate standing up. “That was very brave of you to serve something to guests that you’d never cooked before,” my mom commented kindly after dinner. Thereafter we ordered Chinese whenever dining at my apartment.

When I moved to Colorado and realized a second mortgage was necessary in order to afford getting food delivered, I was determined to cook more often. For better or worse, my signature dish quickly became fajitas, which I made by improvising with ground turkey, frozen artichoke quarters, mushrooms, garlic and canned tomatoes in a big pan. And I substituted couscous for tortillas.

My then-boyfriend, now husband, took to calling the fajita concoction “Manhattan Gumbo.” He was thrilled to eat something other than frozen pizza, plus he wasn’t terribly picky and was great at lying and telling me he liked my cooking. So we eat Manhattan Gumbo about twice weekly in the first year we dated. (He got out of Manhattan Gumbo in year two of our relationship by telling me it was the couscous he disliked.)

Luckily there might still be some hope for my inner Emeril. I look to my mom as inspiration. While she could easily win a James Beard lifetime achievement award for her culinary accomplishments, my family will never let her live down the pecan chicken dinner disaster of the mid-1980s. It’s the only time we ever threw out a meal after one bite and went to a restaurant instead. If she can recover from having prepared the foulest fowl in history, I’m determined to make something that my family will eat out of something other than polite pity.

In anticipation of their visit, I called my sister to get her recipe for lasagna with sausage that my mom said was gourmet and had become a family favorite.

“Um, it’s just lasagna with sausage. Haven’t you ever made a lasagna?” she asked gently. After we got off the phone I imagine that she Googled a list of restaurants to keep on standby.

Regardless, as long as no one ends up in the emergency room with food poisoning or goes out for pizza immediately following dinner, I will consider the evening a success. Bam!

Aspen resident Meredith C. Carroll writes a weekly column. E-mail questions or comments to meredithccarroll@hotmail.com.


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