Cooking Lessons

by Diane McMartin



Perhaps my love of German wine comes from a deep recess in my brain that ties it up with awkward adolescent groping. My parents were permissive and kind, but we weren’t a hippie-dippy ‘naked’ house where the adults smoked pot — -not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I was in college and home for winter break they would go out to dinner and a movie and leave my boyfriend and I at the house so I could cook him dinner. I would go to the nicer grocery store in our town that eventually got bought out by Whole Foods and go a little nuts buying fancy ingredients. This is still my biggest shopping weakness.

The first time I did this, I decided I wanted to make fondue. Many recipes for cheese fondue call for wine, and the one I found called for Riesling. I loved the label, with its stately Gothic script and idyllic picture of vineyards on rolling hills in the background, despite the fact that I knew inexpensive German wine is largely grown on flat land — -the slopes around the Mosel are much too steep to cultivate inexpensively. I remember beginning by rubbing the fondue pot with a clove of garlic, then adding the wine, then watching the grated cheese turn from a clumped, shredded mass to a smooth, glossy sauce. I remember how the tart chunks of green apple tasted against the smooth, creamy cheese. I remember the chocolate mousse I made for dessert, discovering that creme fraiche made it infinitely better because its tang lifted an otherwise rich, sweet dessert. I learned my first important food and wine pairing lesson before I even started drinking wine with any seriousness: that is, that contrasts between tart and rich often make the best pairings.


Aside from how not to fall asleep during arty student theater productions, one of the best things I learned from the taciturn woman who broke my heart in college was how to make this dip. The best recipes are more ideas than recipes, and this dip is one of those.

Take a jar of salsa of the spiciness level of your choice: my advice is to go one notch higher than you normally would buy for eating plain. Pour this into a bowl and stir in a rounded half-cup of cubed cheddar cheese. Aim for 1/4 of an inch cubes. Take a stick of salami and dice it roughly the same size as the cheese: you want about equal amounts diced salami and cheese. Stir this all together, and eat, in giant, greedy scoopfuls, on Tostitos Hint of Lime tortilla chips. If your girlfriend’s stopped calling you, the mild and cloudy tang of a wheat beer (Blue Moon will do in a pinch, but if you live in a major metro area, you know can do better) is great with this little snack, whose taste substitutes nicely for good feelings.


For me, dating a line cook was like a junkie dating her dealer. On Valentine’s Day one year, we braised pig hearts, using a recipe in Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook as a jumping off point; later on, he taught me to love chicken livers. He came up with a recipe for chicken liver mousse that is so good that I have a near-Pavlovian response to the mere mention of chicken livers now. I think it involved apple butter, but all I really remember is wanting to eat it out of the food processor with a spoon.

I had always loved French bistro classics, but that line cook taught me to not be afraid of liver’s iron-y, musky flavor, and he also showed me that putting your own spin on these types of dishes can make them even better. Anthony Bourdain loves to ask people what their “last meal” would be, and for the record, mine would be mountains of chicken liver mousse, a fresh, crusty baguette, and a great bottle of Champagne.


As we drove through central Miami, I thought how much it looked like the Los Angeles of my childhood: low-slung buildings in pastel stucco, bars on the windows with curlicued flourishes to make them look a little less harsh, lots of signs in Spanish. My boyfriend at the time was managing to simultaneously drive, give me a Spanish lesson using a truly obscene reggaeton song, and help me change the settings on my phone. The sun sank lower in the sky, creating a dreamy, golden haze, and he pulled into the parking lot of a mud-green building that looked closed from the outside. He’d been joking the whole trip about taking me to Miami to harvest my organs for money, and for half a second I thought, well, maybe…

We walked into a dimly lit, busy convenience store, with a coffee machine and an ancient juicer behind the register. He asked me to go over to the glass case where the Cuban-style bread was and feel the loaves to see if they were soft enough to bother with. Sadly, they were not. Then he said a few words to the woman behind the counter, and she grabbed a couple of giant, green stalks of sugarcane and plunged them into the machine. A few seconds later, she handed him a styrofoam cup, and he passed it to me. I took a pull from the straw. The juice was mixed with crushed ice. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before — -sort of like melon, or cucumber — -cool and green, delicious and sweet. We passed it back and forth to each other the rest of the way to his mother’s house, where we would eat braised oxtail, yucca fritters, all the comfort food he misses so much living away from home. But the whole night all I could think about was the sweet, alien flavor of the rest of that sugarcane juice we’d left in the car, and how all I wanted was more.

Diane McMartin is currently working on a book inspired by her Hairpin columns. She’s a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and a graduate of a fancy-pants wine and beverage education program in St. Helena, CA. This required many flashcards and a lot of coffee. She lives in the Washington, DC area, where she works in retail teaching wine education classes, helping customers find the perfect wine, and wading through the seemingly endless ocean of bad Chardonnay out there.

Photo via umami/Flickr