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Calling all home cooks

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(Photo by Melissa Sutherland)

Because three or four in the kitchen is more fun than one

When I finally found my way into the kitchen, a friend said that folks become home cooks through either necessity or remembrance. Necessity usually has something to do with money, job, or location; and remembrance typically involves crafting the family's sacred soup or roast recipe with one's taste archive as the only guide. What takes one from merely cooking at home to being a home cook is knowing how to use cooking knowledge to create spontaneously good food: For instance, leftovers can be transformed and a bare pantry renders unplanned feasts. The other trait that defines home cooks is that they are self-taught, so they are not only our family and friends, but also famous folk like Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Nigella Lawson, and Mark Bittman.

In her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child notes that anyone can cook at home if they know what they like and what they are cooking, if they have the basic equipment, and if they cook with care, using fresh ingredients. Because she treasured cooking as one of life's great pleasures, she insisted that we have fun too - and, for her, that enjoyment was enhanced by cooking with friends and family.

Sometimes I enjoy cooking for people, such as my husband, because it thoroughly pleases them. But I also enjoy cooking with friends, a trait I developed as a child. Indeed, some cookbooks tout instilling this attribute at an early age. In Lynn Frederick's Cooking Together is Family Time, the author advises that luring the family to the dinner table is achieved by getting them involved: Assign each member to a duty, such as veggie chopping or table setting. She also cites research suggesting (and isn't this intuitive?) that children perform better in school when the rituals of mealtime are consistent, participatory, and fun.

Chicken Coconut Soup

1 can vegetable broth
2 cans, 14 oz. unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup 1/4 in. sliced fresh lemongrass
3 large chicken breasts, boneless, skinless
1/2 can, 14 oz. straw mushrooms, washed well
1/2 cup corn
2 tbsp chopped ginger
1 jalapeno, sliced into rings
(for less heat, rib and seed, and finely chop)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (or more)
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 avocado, diced

1. Bring first three ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat immediately, add chicken and simmer until almost cooked through, turning occasionally, about 12-15 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate; cool. When cooled, cut meat into 1/2 inch pieces.

2. Strain soup through sieve into another saucepan, discarding the lemongrass. Add corn, mushrooms, ginger, jalapeno slices, and half of lime juice. Simmer to a reduction, about 20 minutes.

3. Add chicken and simmer just to heat through. Taste, adding more lime juice if desired. Ladle soup into bowls, finishing with diced avocado and cilantro.

Serves 4


More than a creative outlet, cooking together is a way to stay connected. My network of cooking buddies is fairly extensive, and we have created a virtual lazy Susan of meals rotating around several homes. At my friend Chuck's, everyone has a hand in creating his choreographed meals. A few weeks ago, we held an Italian-themed dinner because a number of us had recently returned from that gastronomic country. For starters there was an antipasto of salami, a homemade pizza, a bowl of olives, and our friend John's famous epicurean cheese plate. I made Italian Wedding Soup in which small, browned meatballs mingled with escarole and acini di pepe pasta in a savory stock enhanced by paramigiano-reggiano rinds. The main attraction consisted of Chuck's roasted lamb, served with a gravy made from a fresh herb reduction. We cooked, drank, talked, and tasted life.

Home cooking has resurfaced this new millennium as a way to reconnect with these simple gestures of everyday life, a trend supported by specialty and gourmet grocers, such as Central Market, Whole Foods, and the Seoul Oriental Market on Harry Wurzbach. In all these places, we gather the delights and provisions to modify, invent, combine, and take into consideration the imagination of all the cooks that came before us. It is also here that we find ourselves on an odyssey that has nourished the mind and body over time. This journey is a global one, on which hints of India, Vietnam, Thailand, France, or Italy can be found in the aroma of curry, the colors of fresh produce, or the sound of a gently simmering stock.

In the spirit of that, since we are in the middle of winter, forget the banal chicken soup and try instead the Pan-Asian Chicken Coconut Soup. This savory, aromatic dish is velvety, citrus goodness. Lemongrass is vital. The soup also benefits from boneless, skinless chicken breasts. A boost of fresh jalapeño and ginger is an emphatic flavor duo. And the unconventional finish of finely chopped cilantro and diced avocado is a tasty display. If you'd like, prepare a bit of jasmine rice with grated ginger and zest of one lime, which can be layered with the soup for a fortifying feast.

So rise up and call your friends: Cook together, drink together, and rest assured that your next meal will, I promise, be better than had you, again, dined out. •


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