One might think that in a home with two professionally trained cooks, no one would ever utter the question “What do you want for dinner tonight?” with an apathetic shrug. But the opposite can be true. A few years ago, my wife Rachel and I were both working in restaurants, cooking and catering events for a living. By the time we got home at night or on our days off, it was less than exciting to think about what to make. Busy and tired like most people, we wanted to eat, but even we chefs needed inspiration to get dinner on the table.
With many cookbooks on our bookshelf, and the Internet at our fingertips, we started a little game we call “What country do you want to go to tonight?” It always works and we end up with something surprisingly delicious.
It goes something like this:
Me: “How about Vietnam? We could make pho? We have that beef broth in the freezer and I think there’s some cilantro that’s in good shape. We can pick some fresh mint from the little pot on the deck and…”
Rachel: “Hmm, that’s good but I had Asian for lunch and I don’t think there’s really anything to add to pho besides broth and herbs. What about pasta?”
Me: “That might work, we have some parsley too. Should we make a pesto out of the herbs and add some of those walnuts? Are they still any good?”
Rachel: “No, I threw the walnuts out last week. We have chicken thighs! What about chicken?”
Me: “What country is chicken?”
Rachel: “I don’t know. Could it go in the pasta?”
Me: “I don’t think I want pasta.”
Me: “Yes! Viva Mexico!”
Rachel: “Great. I’m making yellow rice and…”
Me: “And those black beans…we could add scallions?”
Me: “I’ll marinate the thighs fast in some chili powder and garlic and cumin. Good?”
Rachel: “Good. There’s some oregano, I think. Want to turn the grill on?”
Me: “I did it already. What about vegetables? We need a vegetable.”
Rachel: “Salad? No, we don’t really have anything. We have beets, is that weird?”
Me: “Oh, what about that beet salad Rick Bayless makes?”
Rachel: “With the red onions and lime?
Me: “Yeah, and the cilantro, and chilies. They’re in a can but I think they might work. I’ll look up the recipe.”*
Rachel: “Yum, I think this is going to be really good. What do you want for dinner tomorrow? Should I thaw something out?”
*(Roasted Beet Salad with Red Onion, Poblano, and Lime from Fiesta at Rick’s, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.)
As soon as I returned from my photo assignment at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California (to take Darrell Corti’s photograph for Canal House Cooking Volume N° 6 The Grocery Store), I called Canal House to check in. The first question they asked was, “What did you buy?” I rattled off the yummy things I found in the store, then said, “But it was the sandwich I ordered for lunch that made the whole trip, the Corti Special.”
The sandwich menuboard describes it as the end cuts and over-cuts of deli meats. You get what you get, and you will never get the same sandwich twice. What you could ask for was the type of bread (I got a sweet roll), the type of cheese (I ordered provolone), and garnishes (I picked shredded lettuce, tomato, mayo, peperoncini, oil and vinegar, and salt and pepper). What a huge sandwich! It was tightly swaddled in white butcher paper and weighed in at well over a pound.
The story doesn’t get very romantic here because I didn’t eat my sandwich sitting at a pretty picnic spot bathing in the California sun. Instead, I ate and enjoyed my sandwich in my car, sunroof open, and Stevie Wonder on the stereo—not a bad second choice. I cannot say exactly which meats were in that sandwich, but if I had to guess I’d say mortadella, ham, and some type of salami. Here’s what made it my cosmic sandwich: I didn’t have to fight with the bread, it was perfectly seasoned, it was cold, it was juicy, and it was copious. Heaven, pure heaven.—Julia Lee