Our kitchen is tiny. With a toddler, it’s almost impossible to eat out at restaurants. And so take out is something of a habit. Or, I should say, in the “time before” it was becoming a habit. But our tiny kitchen and reliance on carry out has betrayed the actual truth: we love to cook and we love to eat our own cooking. But sometimes our passions don’t fit neatly into our reality.
This weekend, I cooked Ethiopian food. We live in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of DC. You cannot swing a dead cat around here without hitting an Ethiopian restaurant. As much as we love Ethiopian food, there’s never been any sort of reason for us to learn how to cook it. Until now. OK. Yes, technically we can still get take out. But we’ve found that even our favorite spot (which also happens to be one of Marcus Samuelson’s favorites) doesn’t carry out very well. Perhaps it’s because we miss out on the server bringing a beautiful tray of colorful foods laid out on a thick piece of injera for us all to collectively dig our (well washed) hands into.
Our youngest turned 2 this weekend and so we invited my parents over (bringing our total numbers to 7, still well short of the “no more than 10” gathered together orders) to celebrate. As always, I (over) ambitiously set out to prepare three dishes, a salad, and injera from scratch. Plus, a dessert for the birthday boy.
To be clear, when I say my kitchen is small, I mean that it has about two square feet of use-able counter space. I lived in two apartments in NYC when I was in graduate school: one studio and one two bedroom. Both of them each had kitchens larger than the one we have now.
And yet, still, I do utterly nonsensical things like plan a multi-dish meal for guests that is comprised of the foods of a cuisine which I have zero background in cooking. To celebrate a toddler’s birthday.
Injera batter must ferment for at least a few days ahead of time. So I was already behind the eight ball when waited until the day before to start looking at what I needed to prepare. So I dug around for a short cut that involved using yogurt to create the “tang” of fermentation while cutting down on the time it would need to sit. OK, I figured, good enough. It would have to do. Thankfully and like most of the cake making around here, the passion fruit cheesecake was mostly Eric’s purview and he had already read through the recipe (from Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen G’oh’s book Sweet) enough to know that it was going to have to be done mostly the day before. Cheesecake has to sit in the fridge.
But, of course, on Sunday morning, as I tried to cook the injera, the whole thing seemed to keep falling apart. And while it had satisfyingly bubbled and even formed little holes on the surface, the batter kept sticking to the pan like an immoveable, inedible feast.
When I am frustrated, I sigh. A lot.
Eric offered to help. And then he took a pan and scrubbed it while I watched more youtube videos and read more about injera making.
Eventually, slowly, and with a little patience, and with Eric scrubbing the pan and also keeping an eye on the kids, the flat breads started to come together. Not perfect. Far from it. But certainly edible. And at least recognizable to the children as injera.
Sunday was beautiful and so, once I had cooked all the batter, we spent parts of it outside; I, with one eye on a clock to make sure that I had enough time to make the rest of the meal. “What time do you need to get started?” Eric asked me. I told him 4:30.
It was nearing 4:30 and we still had to straighten up the house. And I had to get cooking. Eric needed a shower. And there was still the spiced pineapple topping for the cheesecake, which was not otherwise safely ensconced in the refrigerator. The girls helped to clean. “I’m going to take a shower,” Eric announced to me.
“Ok…,” I said. I was standing in the middle of our kitchen floor doing the calculations on how all of this would get cooked. Eric hesitated a moment. He looked at me.
“How are you feeling about getting all this done?” he asked.
“Well, I guess I’m just a bit worried about getting the pineapple finished. Once I start cooking, all the space in here will be taken up. It’s just… things are going to be a bit….” I trailed off. This is the part of meal prep, especially when we are having people over (even if they are “just” my parents) when I start to imagine what it would be like to have a proper, large kitchen, one where the pineapple could be chopped and roasted while the beef tibs were being tossed in the wok and we chatted with our friends and family, holding their glasses of beer and wine. It’s pure fantasy.
“I”ll just make the pineapple topping now,” Eric said decisively so that I snapped out of it.
“But what if the caramel hardens as it cools?” I asked him.
“It won’t. And if it does, we’ll just warm it up again.”
And so he finished the cheesecake topping while I had the cup of tea I had been craving. And then he went off to take a shower and I started cooking dinner.
And at some point, both of the girls (10 and 6) came in and asked if they could help. So often, I look at our two square feet of counter space and so, “No, thank you,” but this time I said, “yes, please.” And one of them cut potatoes and then cabbage. And then they both measured out spices, following the recipes and practicing their fractions, and playing “sous chef” so that when the time came, I could just thrown in pre-measured spices from charming little bowls just as if I was on a cooking show. I was a celebrity in my own tiny kitchen.
And my parents arrived early and the girls offered them drinks and then put out cheese and crackers for them and they doted over the birthday boy. And then they asked Eric to turn on some Sam Cook. And I even sang along while finished up the lentils and quickly cooked the beef on a high, high heat.
And the food was a success (although next time I will put less cardamom in the lentils and I will actually ferment the injera batter rather than using the half-the-time cheat) and the birthday boy was very happy. And we “zoomed” with our family near and far and they watched him devour two pieces of cheesecake as if he was in a competition. Or, as my niece pointed out, like he was Bruce eating the chocolate cake in Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
And it was lovely. And when I think about my tiny kitchen, I am always reminded of what my brother says, “‘Tis a poor carpenter that blames his tools.” ‘Tis love that makes a home.