Growing up, I knew absolutely nothing about cooking. That’s not to say that our house was void of delicious things to eat. Quite the opposite, actually. I had the gustatory pleasure of growing up in an Italian-American family, with matriarchs ‘throwing together’ a red sauce and slinging fresh zeppoles as easily as if they were placing an order for takeout. The effortlessness at the stove was inspirational. I remember when I began asking for the recipes for some of my favorite dishes. My mother never knew them. My grandmother would fire off vague instructions. At one point, the evasive responses prompted me to think that they were keeping the saliva-inducing secrets of their culture to themselves, as a sort of Sisterhood of the Traveling Ravioli.
My mother was and is the ultimate caregiver. She relished the role of wife and mom in a way that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to. She never asked for help; never called me over to the pot to see what she was creating. She was in her zone. One time I sidled up to her as she was frying meatballs. “How much onion do you use?” I asked. “Not too much,” was her response. “How do you know when they’re finished?” I pushed. “It doesn’t take too long,” she countered. This was my ominous culinary training—a red flag if there ever was one.
Fast forward a decade only to find myself starting college and dating my first boyfriend (now husband), Brian, with only scrambled eggs and cookies on my recipe resume. The eggs were a necessity. That was my breakfast of choice at the time, and cracking an egg into a pan is a fast and cheap way for a freshman to eat. The cookie skills, however, were the spawn of a torrid love affair I have with carbs. Sweet carbs. The chocolate-covered, peanut butter-laced kind. These random dishes needed friends. I was dating someone who never said no to a plate of food, regardless of what was on it. I needed to feed that ravenous, passionate hunger of his and cooking seemed like the easiest way to impress.
One complicated internet search later, I came up with the perfect anniversary dinner.
I would make. From scratch. "Scratch" was a revolutionary and frightful idea back then.
This menu struck the balance between elegant and doable. As I type this, I cringe.
But, hindsight is always 20/20.
Steamed Flounder with Carrots and Broccoli
Heart-Shaped Chocolate Cake
I went to my family’s local fish market, a sleepy little place with plenty of fresh,
Long Island catch, to pick up the flounder. Stop & Shop provided the rest, including the box of Betty Hines cake mix. At home, I started furiously prepping, waiting until the last minute to pull the fish from the back of the refrigerator—the icy, cold part that kept it…icy and cold. As the fish was baking, with the vegetables and lemon juice, in the Reynold’s aluminum foil (so simple, so delicious!), I attacked the layer cake, attempting to shape it into a heart, freehand. The clean curves of the heart—and my heart, literally on that plate—began to come undone, crumbling down onto the plate, with the still-warm cake shifting to one side. I quickly melted chocolate in the microwave to create a fix-all “ganache” frosting. I’m a genius, I thought.
As we sit down to eat, with the candles lit, I’m glowing at how brilliantly I’ve pulled this off. This is the meal when he realizes that he can’t live without me. This is the meal that goes through his stomach to his heart.
Brian digs in to his flounder and his fork stands straight up, at attention. The thin, delicate fillet, carefully preserved in the coldest part of the refrigerator, is completely raw in the center. I unravel. While Brian tries to console me, putting back into the oven, I dig into the cake hoping for solace. “This was supposed to be perfectttt,” I whine. He continues saying sweet things, like how delicious the undercooked rice is, and aims for some comic relief. “Don’t worry, little Emeril. Everything’s perfect.” And it was.