They say if you love food, you can cook. I disagree. I know nothing of the art of chicken, or how to cook it in a way enables guests to recognize it as food. I don’t know how to properly chop a tomato without lobbing off a fingernail. And don’t get me anywhere near an onion: I don’t think I could dice it even if I wasn’t bawling away at the knife, eyes aflame.
My romance with cuisine is limited to magically transforming an avocado into a zesty guacamole or whipping up cupcakes so succulent they fall apart in your mouth. I am also quite skilled when it comes to pouring Cheerios out of a box.
Don’t get me wrong: I love cooking. But when it comes to cooking for friends, all of my shaky confidence abandons me and I panic. I don’t remember what a potato looks like. How will I cut the carrot? I will burn everything I put in the pan. I will undercook the chicken. My friends will eat my food politely and then die.
So when I host dinner parties – which I also love -, I usually sheepishly ask one of my guests to cook. Mo, who can cook a mean lamb and specializes in a mouthwatering cream potato dish, did not want to cook this time. And I can’t really blame him. I turned instead to two new colleagues of mine: Amril, a sassy food guru whose namesake automatically places him in a kitchen, and his lovely lady Keyon. A few days earlier, Amril outlined a simple but delicious chicken bake meal for me and promised to come over immediately after work to supervise the cutting and steaming and serving. I was to purchase the necessary items.
Easy, right? But remember – TIE. (This is Egypt.)
Amril and Keyon remained at the school to get some work done and promised to be at mine around 5:30. No problem, I thought, walking to Metro. I could pick up the necessary ingredients. That would be easy. And it was, until I approached the butcher.
“Can I have seven chicken breasts?”
“No. No, no chicken. Helas.”
It is finished.
Great. No chicken and no carrots. This meant I’d have to order from the other supermarket and hope they had chicken and carrots. They did.
Simon came over as a slightly panicked Amril called to tell me that there had been a mishap with their driver and they were waiting at the school to be picked up and debating taking a cab. It would be another hour or so before they arrived.
“Alright then, we’ll cut up the potatoes, how about that?” Simon suggested.
“But…but I don’t know how he wants them cut.”
“It’s not that hard, come on.”
Cooking with Simon is a great way to illustrate how absolutely pitiable my cooking skills are. By the time I lifted a potato and began sawing it in half, Simon had already chopped one into bite-sized chunks with the dexterity and finesse of, well, a professional potato-chopper. It seems entirely plausible that Simon was born with a paring knife in one hand and a potato in the other.
“See that? I’m good with my hands.”
“You’re probably just good with potatoes because you’re Irish. It’s all you know.”
When he was finished with the potatoes, Simon decided to cut up everything else. Garlic, onions, carrots, peppers: the man flitted around the kitchen with frightening speed. He shunned the cutting board and instead rested vegetables on the palm of his hand while striking them easily with the blade. He peeled the outer layers off the onions with a swift kick of the knife. He chopped carrots with a staccato that would’ve kept a bluegrass band happy. All the while, I stood blindly hacking away at a single carrot, my eyes burning from the onion he’d cut minutes earlier.
“How come it’s so easy for you?” I sobbed. “I’m so bad at this.”
“Ach, no one’s ever gonna marry you,” he replied with his usual sympathy.
At one point, I became so panicked that Simon was cutting the vegetables to the wrong sizes that I begged him to stop, tearing a box of peppers from his hands. After a brief altercation, Amril and Keyon arrived.
Simon’s skill was enough to shame me. But these two could’ve been raised in a kitchen. By the time they were finished combining Simon’s meticulously chopped vegetables – which were all the right size, of course -, I was convinced they’d hosted a local cooking show back in Tucson. Amril’s hands were a blur as he filled two pots with chicken, veggies, and spices. Keyon deftly rolled some limes and created restaurant-worthy bruschetta with a yawn. Simon sipped a beer, his work having already been done, and I stood by idly before resolving to Windex the dining room table. It was all I was capable of.
It’s no surprise that the dinner turned out as well as it did. Mo, Marie, Ashley, Anna, and Kilian joined us, devouring the food and sending their compliments to the chef. At the end of the evening, Amril placed some leftover veggies in the fridge.
“After watching me, you should know how to cook this,” he told me optimistically. “I’m leaving you these veggies for dinner this week.”
I did eat the veggies a few days ago. I sauteed them in a pan with olive oil. And they would have been good, if they’d been cooked before I sauteed them.
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