It is just past seven on an unseasonably warm January night, Friday, actually, the traditional date night, the dinner and movie and Junior Mints night. I am sitting at my kitchen counter watching the traffic go by, eating the leftovers of a lome saltado I’d made a few days earlier. The meat is very chewy, almost fibrous.
The day before, I had asked a friend to ask a friend who comes from Peru, where lomo saltado is a nationally revered dish, if there was any way to make the beef slightly less resistant. My friend said her friend said it’s supposed to be chewy. Maybe so, but is it honorable to encourage anything to be this close to shoe-leather, almost inedibly tough? I’m certain I shouldn’t have to masticate the thinly-sliced steak twenty-seven times—yes, I counted—before it’s fit for swallowing. Traditionally, lomo saltado is served on a bed of French fries, but I’m on a diet. My creation is on a bed of brown rice, green and red peppers, onions, corn, and peas. The veggies, all in all, are a lot better than the rest of the dish.
My friend, who is an accomplished cook, also suggested I not follow the recipe, which calls for cooking the meat some twenty minutes. “Two minutes,” she said. “Three at the most.”
This works for me. I often cook for myself, but I’m cursed with an inability to abide by recipes. They seem dull and listless, these instructions; the teaspoon of this and dash of that, the half cup of liquids, olive oil and vinegar and soy sauce; the lonely, brittle bay leaf that will sneak its way into my mouth and try to choke me. And so when I cook, I add ingredients neither called for nor necessarily advisable.
For several months, I was on a vindaloo kick. Everything I made had a teaspoon of the stuff, and of course, everything I made tended to taste the same, though the texture might be different from one dish to the next. I discovered that vindaloo paste and tuna fish do not form an agreeable friendship. I once made a tuna melt with the Indian spices and thought I’d breathed in mustard gas. Another time, I believed that bratwurst and pesto might be a treat, and I was wrong once again. Something, maybe the basil, dissolved the bratwurst skin and left an untidy pile of odiferous sausage meat in my plate. The meal was not salvageable.
My basic cooking knowledge was handed down by my mother, who learned to fix meals in France during and after World War II, when there was a shortage of everything—meat, fish, fruit, dairy, spices, even bread. She was an inventive woman, my mother, and I remember her making mutton burgers whose pestilential aroma could be detected a block away, and nasty cold poached eggs floating like drowned corpses in maroon gelatin. When you punctured the eggs, the yolks spread like an infection in the aspic. Whenever my mother made oeufs en gelée, I had nightmares.
The most detested meal though, was bouillie, a soup made of day-old bread and water laced with whatever the kitchen and neighbors’ garde-mangé might have on hand. Eating bouillie was torture; everything about it was repulsive including taste and consistency.
A couple of years ago, I discovered that bouillie had become a sought-after dish in the posh restaurants of some Southern states, notably Louisiana. I contacted the editor of the Washington Post food section to suggest a story on bouillie’s origins, including a couple of recipes from then and now. Writing about historical food might be fascinating, I said. It could even lead to a monthly column! The editor was interested, even enthusiastic. I sent in a story outline, sample paragraphs, and some photos I’d taken to illustrate the dish’s preparation. I never heard from the editor again.