A young Army officer serving with me many years ago used to say that he aspired to be a modern renaissance man. As a minimum, he said, such a man could earn a living, perform household repairs, write a sonnet, deliver a baby, and cook a meal. I have had similar aspirations for most of my life, not necessarily aiming for the expert level in everything, but wishing to have at least basic competence in a wide variety of areas.
The last item in his list, cooking, has been among the most useful skills while also at times the most elusive. Major set-piece meals are not my biggest problems. Over the years, using my wife’s recipes and following her instructions, I learned to do holiday meals for family and guests, and even occasionally a festive dinner for friends. My defeat, though, lies in trying to throw together something for the first time, experimenting perhaps with a personal touch or two. The ability to do this successfully, I’m convinced, is genetic and cannot be learned. Both my son and my daughter willingly plunge into such uncharted waters and turn out edible food. They did not get that gene from me.
My daughter recently, at my request, sent me a recipe, actually parts of two recipes she’d melded from parts of two others, with an added twist or two of her own. It was for a brawny soup that her family had loved. While I normally balk at any new recipe involving more than 5 ingredients, this one sounded worth the effort. It had things in it like Italian sausage, kale, broccoli, chicken stock, cream, onion, and numerous spices. And it involved the use of the Instant Pot.
If you’re familiar with the Instant Pot, you know that it is an amazing combination of pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, saute’ pan, steamer, yogurt maker, and less specific other functions. It does all this stuff safely, with microchip independence, and quickly. I consider it to be worth the cost even if never used for anything other than boiling eggs. It boils eggs fast and to perfection, with shells that slide off easily and almost in one piece, leaving not a single bit of eggshell to crack between your teeth later.
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As you imagine my preparation of the highly anticipated soup, I would like for you to visualize an aging but still strong and competent man, smiling confidently at he glances at the recipe and then performs each step just as it is outlined, finishing up in no time with something delicious and satisfying.
I would like you to visualize it that way, but it would be wrong. The actual picture is of an old guy who, typically, forgot the onion, wine vinegar, and several spices when buying the ingredients earlier, and who now has to make an eighteen-mile round trip to the grocery store. Then visualize him chopping kale and broccoli frantically, and onion tearfully, in a mad effort to get the right stuff in the pot, which is already heated and ready, and may decide to turn itself off unused if too much time passes. Hear him yell at the dog to stop barking at the squirrel on the window, then try to sound civil when answering the ringing telephone, smearing the handset with olive oil, Italian sausage grease, and a splash of heavy cream. See him squint at the recipe, now spotted with chicken stock droplets, trying not to swear when he sees that the cream he was dumping in the pot is not supposed to go in until everything else is cooked.
Showing off its own skill in the face of my lack thereof, the Instant Pot, once brought to full pressure, took exactly 3 minutes to cook the mixture into a steaming, bubbling, spicy batch, thick with tasty ingredients. Whether it came out the way it was supposed to, I have no idea. It appeared to be edible. Tired and hungry, I ate ‘way too much of it and then had the payback of a restless night.
My self-confidence usually returns in about a week from one of these ventures into unknown culinary territory. In the meantime, for the next few nights I’ll probably just have boiled eggs.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”