Cookbook Countdown #6: One Good Dish


My friend Jenny and I met as assistants at a talent agency in LA, where she never made a mistake, and I took naps under my desk. We barely knew each other when she helped me with some professional scrape, and I asked her if she wanted to get dinner. She almost said no, because she thought I had a grumpy face (I did/do).

After a late work night, she met me outside the office, fresh as a daisy in a kelly green coat and a string of pearls. I wore threadbare mens’ corduroys and hand-me-down sneakers. Like a real jerk, I assumed she was too pulled-together to be fun, and I was dead wrong. By the end of dinner I had decided that if I couldn’t be her, at least I could keep her nearby, forever. I plied her with a bottle of rose that tasted like a jolly rancher, and proposed moving in together.

Jenny laughed liked she thought I was insane, but I changed her mind by inviting myself along to her weekend plans, and waiting until she said yes. My roommate was a sweet young actress who spent most of her year planning Burning Man outfits. Jenny was living with a Fabio-looking software programmer whose only piece of furniture was a Bowflex, in the living room. When I reminded her of this, she caved.

We couldn’t afford the three-bedroom house we wanted to rent, but didn’t have any other friends, so we advertised online for a roommate. A nice-seeming girl committed – a professional “background worker,” which means “extra.” Unfortunately she had to back out almost immediately, but we begged her to come to the lease signing so we could lock it down, promising to find a replacement before move-in. She attended, and did a bang-up job in the role of responsible tenant. “This would be a good place for our emergency kit” she murmured, opening the hall closet.

We moved in to no power the first night, because we didn’t know we had to have it switched on. Jenny saved the evening by introducing me to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice on her laptop, with stolen wifi. It was one of the best nights of our lives, because we were 20something, and buoyant, and this exists:

Once we settled in with electricity and a legitimate roommate (who we found at a bar), everything was peachy. I was confounded by all the grownup-type things Jenny did, like running errands before noon and returning with paint swatches. My room was a mattress on the floor, under a pile of clothes. Hers was inspired by, but trounced, the cover of Elle Decor.

“Who’s going to paint all that?” I asked, when she came back with a sheaf of greys for her room. “I can’t tell the difference, and I won’t do it.” She shot me a look to say she would definitely never let me touch anything she owned. “I hired someone from Craigslist,” she said breezily. I screamed, for two reasons. 1. People on Craigslist, 2. My mother’s aunt was murdered by her housepainters. It’s a tragic story for another time, but a fact relevant herein.

A friendly fellow in his mid 40s showed up, looking like the dad from Family Ties. In between investment banking jobs and new in town, he said he was revisiting a college standby for easy cash. He was polite, grew up abroad, and when we asked about his weekend plans, he said “I’m attending the Dreamworks Oscar Party.” While Jenny found this charming, I collapsed under the weight of so many red flags, and became fully convinced that he was going to sneak back into the house at night and kill us both while we slept.

I recited the evidence to Jenny in a whisper as he prepared to leave. He wouldn’t give us his phone number because his cell phone, he explained, was on the fritz. Suspicious not only because nobody says “fritz,” but also because he had called from a variety of restricted numbers that morning. He told us his car was in the shop because “the turbo on [his] Saab 900 Turbo was acting up.” Suspicious because turbo can’t be a real noun, and also because he gave me too many details to be telling the truth.

“A great little car,” he added. An innocent man definitely just have responded “It’s in the shop.” Also perhaps more suspicious was that he claimed to work at Citibank and own real estate in England, yet was painting houses for cash. She offered him a ride home and I jumped in the car. We dropped him off at the Starbucks supposedly near his supposed apartment and on the way home I explained my misgivings in such foreboding detail even unflappable Jenny became a little spooked. We checked her phone log, and the only unrestricted number he called from was an Atlanta cell phone. Suspicious not only because he said he had just moved from Houston, but also because Google revealed that the phone number belonged to a world renowned reiki healer, based in Brooklyn, as detailed on her colorful web site.

“We should definitely not sleep here tonight,” I said. “We need to go to the office. He can’t get in there.” She rolled her eyes. I texted my boss, Sharon, “If I don’t come to work tomorrow it’s because we hired a painter off of craigslist I’m dead.” She responded immediately with “That’s dumb. You have my credit card number, check into the Standard.” This locked her in as my third female friend.

Jenny patiently accompanied me to work and briskly called his future place of employment as “Cindy from Mary Patterson’s office,” explaining that “Mary” was an old friend from Houston and wanted to send a gift on his first day on the job. After a few tense transfers it turned out he was, indeed, a legitimate investment banker, with a legitimate corner office. We went back home but Jenny, ever tolerant, agreed to sleep with a screwdriver under her pillow, just in case.

Supposedly, sharing a truly harrowing experience can bring two people closer for life. That night was probably more of a near-death event for me than it was for Jenny, who was activating rule # 1 of female friendship, “your feelings matter.” In the 12 ensuing years I’ve called her my best friend, my maid of honor, my sister, and these words never seem enough. Even so, we’re not the most outwardly demonstrative, other than an unflagging enthusiasm for each other’s company, and words that never run out. Our friend Evan once noticed that we don’t say “I love you” to each other. Jenny’s response was “Calling it ‘love’ would be an insult to our relationship.”

I would never have been able to reel Jenny in without the hard work of one of our guests for this dinner. Emily Foster was my first post-college female friend, after a lifetime of mostly dudes, and girls who were also friends with a lot of dudes. Emily was sweet and thoughtful, and sensitive, and a puzzling new species to me. In being awesome while also expressing that she had feelings, she kicked off my decades-long transformation from sentient abacus to human being. She was patient, and kind, and when I was neither, she wasn’t afraid to cry in front of me until I understood why.

Her husband Atty Bing (real name!!) is a miracle of a human being who can also construct anything with his hands, whether it is an entire house or a perfect crab cake. Atty is a tremendous cook, and from Boston, and it would have been suicide to attempt this menu for a tremendous cook from Boston, if they weren’t such good friends and kind people.  I’ve been wanting to crack open David Tanis’s One Good Dish ever since our friend Philip used it for a sublime dinner at his apartment in Paris, and after a week of butter and meat, I felt like I was back home in California. This meal was the best we’ve had so far.

Chrysanthemum Greens with Silken Tofu

tofucompareThis is a more substantial version of the cold tofu and greens salad you get at many Japanese restaurants. I substituted spinach, and I’ve tried it raw since with a Miso dressing. It makes for a light, filling meal when you’ve pigged out all day, or are planning to pig out later in the evening. Two thumbs up.

Speckled Sushi Rice with Nori

sushiriceThis dish is the staple to end all staples. Just sushi rice, vinegar, and furikake (I was too lazy to toast nori, but it’s in there?), and a whole rice cooker’s worth was gone in a second.

Fragrant Sea Scallop Cakes

scallopcompareI think meat pastes are gross, so pureeing scallops in a food processor kind of turned my stomach, but these Thai-ish scallop cakes were refreshing and satisfying, and 30 times better than a crab cake. The dipping sauce was divine and could be used as a dressing on an herby green salad. Atty claimed to love it, which made my month.

Sweet Fresh Cheese

cheesecompareWhole foods said they ran out of ricotta so I had to make my own, for which I used Ina Garten’s recipe – it comes out perfect every time, especially if you let it sit in the warm water and stay a little loosey goosey. While hideous, this is a delicious dessert for people who don’t have a sweet tooth. The hardest part of it was finding 4 shot glasses, because we are old.


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