I’ve been mulling over this for a little while now trying to decide how to talk about this recipe. You see, last week I had the distinct (and rare) pleasure of cooking for a guest. I made plans with a friend to get together, and had promised to cook for him the next time we did so. In the spirit of full disclosure, I told him I wanted to try out a specific recipe that had recently surfaced in the Alison Roman fandom and I needed him to be my guinea pig. He’s a perfect subject for these kinds of experiments as he isn’t a particularly picky eater (to my knowledge) and he’s the sort of affable man who won’t make you feel as though you’ve disappointed him if something goes wrong. (He’s also a blog-writer himself: check him out!) In other words: he is the perfect guest. All of this aside, it was a great excuse to spend some time together and catch up—and here’s where we come to the crux of the thing. Our evening together was one of those unusual circumstances (in my life anyway) when it honestly didn’t matter what was on the table. I think we both ate without paying much attention at all, which is in one sense remarkable because I pay far more attention to food than I should, and in another sense isn’t remarkable at all, because we were focused on the more important thing, which was the conversation at hand and enjoying the company.
So, the food. I decided to make Alison Roman’s wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts. It looked simple and delicious, the recipe wasn’t too demanding for a weeknight, and I had everything but the artichokes in my refrigerator. Perfect. I drive an hour home from work every day, so my gracious guest gave me a little head start to get myself settled (what a guy), and the night before I had prepped my favorite hummus and a loaf of this bread that I’m obsessed with so I was in good shape. The chicken went in the pan to brown, followed in due course by the artichoke hearts and onions … which is where things started to go a little south. I could already see that the pan was too crowded. My general rule is to follow a recipe strictly the first time I make it, and adjust later if I decide to make it again. Under different circumstances I might have cooked the vegetables in batches to brown them nicely and evaporate the resultant moisture, but I was crunched for time and had already forewarned my guest that a total dinner flop would mean pizza from down the street. It was all in, or nothing.
In went the wine, and all of it went into the oven to reduce—only nothing reduced. My guest arrived and we opened more wine (a delicious blend from Galen Glen) and I returned the pan to the stove to move things along, but I had still had rather a soft pile of steamed artichoke hearts and onions with (albeit) pretty well-browned chicken thighs. Oh well. I doled it out with orzo and roasted asparagus (which was perfect, by the way), and we opted to skip salad because I had slightly overdone it with the quantity of food. (Oops.)
Today as I was eating the last of the leftovers with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I tried to think of what was bothering me about this recipe. Everything else I tried by Alison Roman has been fantastic, to the point that I don’t even want to share it with anyone else. (Hop off my caramelized shallot pasta.) Sometimes recipes don’t work, and that’s OK. It’s not strictly a reflection on my skill as a cook (passable) or the skill of the author (legendary). I had read reviews from folks who said it was bland (it kinda was) and from others who said it was wouldn’t-change-a-thing fantastic (mine wasn’t). So part of my angst is bare disappointment in having created something with undesirable results. I think the remainder is disappointment at missing an opportunity to make something truly memorable for someone else, especially when it arises so seldom. (Let me here emphasize that I am not a social outcast; I choose to spend a lot more time alone than I do with people, and my kitchen is too small to host more than one person at a time. When I invite you over, it’s because I want to spend some serious time with you and I don’t always have the energy for that.)
But as I munched down the still quite-moist chicken and the rather too-soft artichoke hearts today at lunch, I thought about what I really remember about that evening (a bit hazy, thanks to the amount of wine we consumed). It wasn’t the meal, but the exponentially greater pleasure of my friend’s company that lingered on the palette. The leftovers left something to be desired, but our conversation was extraordinary. I’m not a great talker, but given a little wine and the right listeners, I will wax eloquent (read: talk too much) about certain things: classical music, European history, and food, to start with. We talked about Baroque period instruments (sheep guts) and Erik Satie. We talked about cacio e pepe and pasta carbonara (pig cheeks). We talked about love and the nature of living. We stayed up far too late and may have suffered from some pretty bad hangovers the next day. But the soggy artichokes lay forgotten on the stove, and they were irrelevant. So is my disappointment at the meal itself. And that feels pretty good.
Next time, it’ll be pasta. Next time, it could be grilled cheese, or nothing at all, and it wouldn’t matter. Sometimes, I need a reminder that the real value of a meal is the company you share it with. Cheers to that.