How does one succeed at the Game of Love? It’s simple, really: Play to your strengths, no matter how lame you may think them. See, Mr. Panda is not the only person who’s expressed an interest in marrying me, oddly enough. Men, women, married women, and all types of assorted characters have expressed an interest in keeping me around forevermore due to my one natural talent: I can cook.

The ability to cook large, complicated, flavorful meals is, in my Cajun family, really nothing special. So it was a real surprise to me in adulthood to find out that many of my friends had a hard time following the instructions of a packet of Top Ramen, let alone whipping up a batch of ettouffe’. I don’t know how much of cooking is learned techniques and how much is instinct, all I can say is that much of food preparation comes rather naturally to me. It’s probably the only thing in my life that I’ve ever been able to just do, without having to try really hard or “fake it till I make it.”

Yet, I never once thought of cooking as a talent until I started getting asked out at potlucks. We all have something like that, don’t we? A secret talent that turns out to be pretty damn handy once we learn to harness it. In my early twenties, when it came to dating I didn’t trot out the usual manipulation tactics of palling around other guys to stoke the jealousy fire or having “where is this going” conversations. Nope, I just made paneed salmon with dill butter and went from 0 to girlfriend in no time. The old adage is, in my experience, pretty spot-on: the way to a man’s heart is indeed through his stomach. But it’s not as sinister as all that- snaring a man with snickerdoodles. I think it’s a little more tender: food is nourishment, enjoyment, sensuality. Food is love. Coming up: I’ll share with you a robust and hearty recipe, perfect for a Fall romance.

When is Mr. Panda most affectionate to me? When I’m in the kitchen, chopping or stirring something. It’s probably just a coincidence because I’m usually cooking dinner when he gets home from work. My hands either coated in minced onion or lethal with capsaicin from some pepper or another, Mr. P doesn’t attempt to let me greet him in the evenings. He just comes up behind me and holds me for a few minutes, inhaling the aroma of whatever’s bubbling in the saucepan. Or, he’ll just hang near the cutting board enquiring about the evening’s meal and generally hovering around like a kid on Christmas morning. Eating is such an important part of our relationship that I only registered for kitchen stuff. And the first item to arrive in our wee nest from Crate & Barrel is still my favorite cooking instrument in the world. Behold! The Mario Batali Dutch Oven:

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It’s large, it’s heavy-lidded, it’s thick-walled for even cooking, it’s gorgeous and classic in it’s white coating, and it browns like a dream. I registered for this $90-something behemoth as a pipe dream, never thinking anyone would get it for me. So when it arrived, I was floored. The best bit? It comes with it’s own little book of Batali recipes!! As much loathing as I have for the Rachel Rays of the world, there are some celebrity chefs that are truly worth of their book deals and kitchen goods and all that schlock. Iron Chef Batali is one of them. Look at this man:

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This is a man who knows and loves good food. I love this fat orange fucker. I just want to kiss his sweaty, glistening orange cheeks.

Here is Batali’s amazing recipe for classic Italian Osso Buco. My additions/suggestions/notes in italic:

Ingredients

  • 4 veal shanks, cut three inches thick (about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds) I am kind of morally opposed to veal, so I use chicken thighs, but any bone-in meat will do.
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium carrot, chopped into 1/4-inch-thick coins- this cut is essential. Osso Bucco is all about the textures
  • 1 small Spanish onion, chopped into 1/2-inch dice- don’t dream of putting a finer dice on these onions. They should be like actual playing dice or larger.
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped into 1/4-inch slices
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves- Or more. I add more. The thyme must be a fresh herb. The dried stuff won’t work here.
  • 2 cups Basic Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)- Or, for ease, use 1 can of Hunt’s Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes with garlic.
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 recipe Gremolata (recipe follows
  • 1 loaf of crusty, artisan bread

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Season the shanks all over with salt and pepper. To avoid handling the raw meat more than necessary, I skip this step and instead put the salt and pepper directly into the pan with the oil. In a heavy-bottomed 6 to 8 quart casserole, heat the olive oil and spices until smoking. Place the shanks in the pan and brown all over, turning to get every surface- this is the cool part, the salt and pepper will stick to the browning meat! , 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the shanks and set aside. Reduce the heat to medium, add the carrot, onion, celery and thyme leaves and cook, stirring regularly, until golden brown and slightly softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, chicken stock and wine and bring to a boil. Swat away nosy fiance, who at this point will undoubtedly be all up in your kitchen hoovering up all that deliciously-scented air. Place shanks back into pan, making sure they are submerged at least halfway. If shanks are not covered halfway, add more stock. Cover the pan with tight-fitting lid of aluminum foil. Place in oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours and cook until meat is nearly falling off the bone.

Remove the casserole from the oven and let stand 10 minutes before serving with Gremolata. Some people like this dish with pasta or potatoes. I serve this meal in a deep, high-walled bowl with a leafy green salad on the side and lots of crusty bread to soak up all of the good juices.

  • BASIC TOMATO SAUCE
  • 1 Spanish onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 ounces virgin olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (or 2 tablespoons dried leaves)
  • 1/2 carrot, shredded finely
  • 2 28-ounce cans of tomatoes, crushed and mixed
  • Salt to taste

To Make Tomato Sauce: Saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until translucent but not browned. Add thyme and carrot, cook 5 minutes over medium heat and add tomatoes. Bring to boil, lower heat to just bubbling and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt to taste and set aside. Or, just skip this whole step and use some canned tomatoes. I mean, I’m all for cooking a great meal and going all out, but damn, I got other shit to do..


  • GREMOLATA
  • (Recipe courtesy of Mario Batali)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted under the broiler until dark brown
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • a few tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese

Mix the parsley, pine nuts and lemon zest loosely in a small bowl- I add Parmesan cheese to mine, for that extra punch of flavor and saltiness. Maybe that’s blasphemous, but I don’t really care. Set aside until ready to serve.

ossobuco

When Mr. Panda and I tucked into this meal, there was a whole lot of slurping and grinning and beaming at each other. Seriously one of the better things I’ve ever cooked ever. It was the first meal I cooked in our very first wedding gift, and it was perfect. I think Mr. P fell in love with me just a little more that day- not because I prepared a great meal, but because it was finally sinking in that we were going to spend the rest of our lives at the same table sharing the same food and building beautiful memories every day. It’s funny how you can find romance in the most unlikely places.

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I’d like to dedicate this post to the people who had their domestic dreams snatched away by Proposition 8 and other similar ballot measures this week. My heart goes out to you all. Stay strong, stay vigilant. One day we will see the end of discrimination and the rightful granting of civil rights to all people in this country.

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