It Is What It Is.


by Steven J Holetz

The olive oil is just starting to hiss when I throw the chopped onions in, two medium sized ones, one
each red and white.  I also throw in a chopped shallot for good measure, stirring them all with an old
wooden spoon. I would have preferred to add a teaspoon of bacon fat to sauté the onions, but the
olive oil is what I have on hand so it will do fine. Once the onion starts to turns translucent, I add
three large cloves of minced garlic. The sautéed onion was already smelling pretty good, but the
aroma of the garlic is truly fantastic: an aroma powerful enough to change one’s mood, to stop a
 vampire in it’s tracks, to transform a house into a home. I sweat the garlic for a minute or two,
and then I add the two quarts of chicken stock, and bring it all to a boil. In the meantime, I cut 4
potatoes into a large bite size dice, and slice two leeks lengthwise, carefully cleaning the silt from
between the layers of the white end before chopping it down its length. The pot is boiling now, and
 thanks to the store-bought stock there’s no foam to skim, so I chuck in half of the potatoes and
leeks, and lower it to a simmer.  

While I gave always enjoyed eating, my serious interest in food preparation has been a more recent acquisition.
I still remember my first attempt to cook something myself. I must have been about 7 years old, and I tried to
cook some bacon for my folks for breakfast one morning. I figured I had seen mom do it enough times, how
hard could it be? I got out her electric skillet, turned the dial until the red light came on, and filled the bottom
of the pan with slices of bacon. However, for some reason the bacon refused to turn beautifully brown and
deliciously crispy as I expected. Instead it remained shockingly, accusingly pink. So after what seemed like
an eternity without the slightest change in color or tastiness in the bacon, I thought carefully and did what any
self respecting criminal would do. I got rid of the evidence. I took the bacon out to the trash can, cleaned up
the skillet, and put everything away. I think I told Mom what I had done, and since I don’t recall being punished
over that particular offense, I really appreciate the fact that she didn’t come totally unscrewed about my
throwing half a pound of perfectly good bacon in the garbage. After that, I left the kitchen alone for quite
some time. 

A half an hour has passed and the potatoes are now soft. I get out the immersion blender and lower
it into the soup, enjoying the hum and whine as I run the blades through the liquid, once again amazed
that I managed to do this without covering myself in scalding liquid. When the soup is perfectly smooth,
I taste it, and add some salt and ground white pepper. I then add the rest of the potatoes and leeks, and
return the pot to its previously scheduled simmer.    

My cooking chops didn’t really progress too much over the next decade, culinary breakthroughs coming in
the form of an ability to constantly keep my kitchen workspace clean acquired in two high-school summers
at Taco Bell, and the perfection of my chili dog recipe, which would become a college standby. To whit:

2 slices of Roman Meal wheat bread, laid side be side on the plate, and topped with
3 hotdogs that have been sliced length-wise and pan-fried
1 can of Nalley’s Chili with Beans, warmed concurrently in a separate pot, and poured over the hot dogs
4 oz Cheddar cheese, grated over the whole mess.
Throw it in the microwave for a minute to melt the cheese and
Voila! Your heart attack is served!

When I left home for college, my Mom gave me a handwritten recipe book, which provided me with a few
basic recipes that I still use variations of to this day: Spaghetti, Lasagna, Turkey dinner.  A move to
Los Angeles and a better paycheck gave me the ability to eat something other than Spaghetti, Ramen and
Chili Dogs.  Meeting my adventurous wife, Julie, gave me the impetus to try new things. So by this point
as a young man, I could get by in the kitchen and certainly keep myself fed, but still had nothing flashy
in my repertoire. I now had the means, & thanks to my love of food itself, the motive. I just needed
one thing: Michigan.

As I wait for the soup I unwrap a loaf of sourdough I bought earlier today. The outer crust is crisp
and golden, and flakes nicely as I cut into it with the bread saw. I cut several slices,
reveaing the
beautiful, soft white interior,
and wrap them in a towel for the bread bowl. I save the short crispy
end for myself, spreading a little Irish butter on it for good measure. The crunch of the crust is a
perfect counterpoint to the mellow tartness inside. Delicious. Of course, I need a beer now, so
I retrieve a Bridgeport Blue Heron Pale Ale from the fridge, and find it perfectly cold and crisp.

There were three important factors that contributed heavily to my culinary awakening, all of which took
place upon our move to Michigan in 1995, and without any one of which I might not have developed my
interest in all things culinary. The first was that Julie and I finally got cable, and more importantly,
The Food Network. Thus was I introduced to Emeril Legasse , whose first show quietly taught me
invaluable lessons that increased my cooking skills ten-fold, before he lost me completely as he changed
format to play to the audience on his live show. I would watch the Essence of Emeril constantly, along
with Molto Mario and David Rosengarten’s underappreciated and seemingly forgotten series Taste,
from which I got the Chili Verde recipe I still use today.  Fortunately this coincided with factor number
two, Julie’s being promoted to a position that gave her access to basically every cookbook currently
being published. The third factor and perhaps the most important, was that I met my friend Gonzalo,
the culinary Obi-Wan who would mentor me in the ways of food geekiness.

Since that time I have come along way. I have tried foods from around the world, from many different
cuisines and techniques, and have even attempted to cook some of them. I have become the owner of
strange items as a pasta roller, tortilla press, mandolin, dumpling maker, tagine and pizza peel. It is my
most sincere hope that I can pass my love of food and interest in trying the different and unknown to my
kids. Early results are promising as they seem to eat things that other kids won’t, and have learned to
appreciate that great flavor sometimes comes in bizarre packages.

Through our work Julie and I have built a pretty wonderful cookbook library, and have had amazing
opportunities to dine in a number of world class restaurants, highlighted by meals at Charlie Trotter’s,
Nobu, 11 Madison Park, Bibendum and Le Bernardin. I have often had the romantic notion of wanting
to work in a place like that, particularly after reading books such as Kitchen Confidential by Anthony
Bourdain, or Bill Buford’s Heat. But then I realize that I simply don’t have what it takes to hang with
the pros, the dedication to work the long hours and holidays when people most want to celebrate and
dine out. One of the greatest joys I know is cooking for the ones I love, and were I to have such a job,
I would be working on those nights when being with my loved ones is most important to me. Although
perhaps one day I will be able to take the time to volunteer in a restaurant  I love for a time and perfect
my knife skills at the very least.       

Once again the remaining potatoes and leeks are soft, so it’s showtime. I add a quarter cup of
heavy cream for a little richness, then taste the soup one last time, and adjust the seasoning a little.
It tastes pretty great to me. Finally, I ladle the soup into four bowls and top each with a sprinkle
of  chopped scallion and Italian parsley , and set them on the table along with the bowl of sourdough,
and yell“Dinner!” I crack open a bottle of wine and the kitchen suddenly explodes in a cacophony
of squeals, whines, laughter, orders, and questions. As we all sit down to what I pretentiously call
my Five Lily Potato Soup, I am perfectly content,  and I realize that everything I need is right
here around this table.

  Copyright  2007 Steven J Holetz

Home    Archive   Reviews   Links    Credits    Blog