Crashing the menu

Ten years ago, about this time of the year, I experienced a big reality check when I called Caroline, my sister-in-law, to confirm our holiday plans with my husband’s family for our Thanksgiving dinner.

“What would you like me to bring?” I asked her.

“Nothing,” she replied.

I was a little surprised. “No, really, it’s no trouble. Would you like me to cook a side dish? A dessert? I don’t mind.”

“No, really,” Caroline responded, “Don’t bring anything. We’ll take care of all of it.”

Now, to give a little context here, Caroline and her partner Sandy were (and still are) very good cooks, and they knew exactly what they were doing. By contrast, I was not a good cook at all.

Or maybe I should say that I was not a cook at all, since I never really learned.  At that time, I defined “home-cooked meal” as Tuna Helper with a side of canned green beans. We went out to dinner a lot and got take-out or pizza a lot. Lefotvers night was reheated takeout.  My encounters with fresh produced extended to a weekly bag-o-salad and a tomato to go on top.

So I wasn’t offended by Caroline; it was just sort of a wake-up call.

Anyway, that Thanksgiving I decided to crash the menu (so to speak)  by bringing a dessert, and I wanted to make something really impressive. I went and found this fantastic recipe for a pumpkin swirl cheesecake. It was complicated for me at the time, but I braved the unknown, buying my first jars of allspice and ground nutmeg and crushing pecans and ginger snaps for the crust. I learned as I went along. It came out fantastic, and I was so, so proud to bring it to the table that year.  I raked in the compliments, my fragile emergent cook-ego buoyed for a long time to come.  And I have made that pumpkin swirl cheesecake recipe for every Thanksgiving meal thereafter.

Since then I’ve kind of taught myself to cook—not a gourmet, yet, but I can deglaze a pan with the best of them. It’s funny, but even now,  I am still as proud as can be when I master a new recipe.  Just this week I tried making vegetarian chili for the first time, and I made a newbie mistake when I got to the end of the recipe and found that I didn’t have chili powder or cumin to finish it off. (Lucky for me, in my neighborhood I am surrounded by all kinds of domestic goddesses and amazing chefs. A quick call to my neighbor Robin saved the day.) My husband, who rarely praises my vegetarian versions of meat recipes, said it was “really good.” Even now I am still quietly congratulating myself on making a fantastic chili, patting my silly little cook-ego on the back.

I’m happy because each success gives me the courage to be a little braver, to try something a little more challenging. I’m planning to surprise my family this weekend  with two new recipes I’ve been excited about: Eggplant Rollatini and Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones.

Now whether my picky kids will actually *eat* the eggplant recipe is another question (I’m hoping to have good luck with the pumpkin scones).  I may be in for another reality check. My chef-ego can handle it, though.

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