They say love begins in the kitchen. Fortunately for my wife and me, the origin of our besottedness long predates any of my adventures 'tween dishwasher, oven, and refrigerator.
Yesterday was Valentine's Day, and the wife and I kept it fairly low-key. The little lady had a dentist appointment after work, and I returned home well before she did. As a V-Day surprise for my sweetie, I decided to have dinner ready for her when she came home.
I chose to make a few of her favorites: Chinese kung pao chicken and chocolate chip cookies. These should have been fairly simple tasks: the Chinese dinner came in a box kit with all the ingredients in little plastic baggies and explicit instructions, and the cookies were of the break-and-bake pre-made cookie dough variety. I've watched the wife prepare these items a million times--how hard could they be?
In a tactical decision my grandfather would have endorsed, I began with dessert. I pre-heated the oven, placed heaping teaspoon-sized dollops of cookie dough spaced two inches apart from each other per the Toll House protocol, and inserted the cookie sheet into the oven. The "recipe" called for an oven incubation time of nine to eleven minutes. When I'm working with a new experimental procedure in the laboratory that prescribes such a range of time, I nearly always choose the average. So, in this case, I set the timer for ten minutes, and shifted my attention to the main course.
Again, mimicking my laboratory habits, I read and re-read the instructions, neatly arranging the ingredients on the counter in the order that they would be required. Dinner preparation proceeded ominously smoothly. I boiled the rice and chopped the chicken breast to 3/4-inch modules. I had just moved all of the chicken breastlets to the frying pan when the intoxicating chocolate-chippity aroma suddenly morphed into the pungent bouquet of charred cookie. Just as I thought to myself, "Strange, the timer hasn't yet beeped," the timer beeped. I oven mitted up and extracted the metal sheet upon which the world's easiest-to-prepare cookies rested, nine shades browner than golden. The cookies were done.
My cookie options were limited. I had exhausted all of our dough (a recurring theme for us, of late), and the only cookies I am prepared to create from scratch are made on my three-in-one sandwich/waffle/pizzelle maker. I was still recovering from the batch I'd baked two months ago, and my time was limited. The wife would be home within twenty minutes. I quickly assembled a Valentine's Day Cookie arrangement (as if it had been the plan from the beginning), combining the freshly seared chocolate chip cookies with the three remaining sugar cookies we'd bought at the store last weekend, a few Oreo knock-offs, some low-fat 'Nilla Wafers, and the last of our frozen supply of Christmas pizzelles.
I was short on time, and had to abandon the cookie project to focus my will on the successful completion of kung pao chicken. Meticulously, I followed each step: frequently mixing the fried chicken until golden brown and no longer pink in the center, then stirring in peanuts, kung pao sauce, and hot water. The final task was to add the dried peppers to the chicken. The cooking instructions advised that, if an "extra kick" was desired, the dried peppers could be squeezed to release their seeds. I pondered this option. The wife and I both appreciate a little zest in our diets, and what was kung pao chicken if not spicy?
I turned the pepper baggie over in my hands and pinched the peppers. I tried to modulate the intensity of pinching such as to liberate an intermediate quantity of seeds. I opened the bag, dumped the peppers into the saucy, peanuty chicken mix. Almost instantly, I began to sneeze. My cell phone rang. I answered, sneezing.
"Hi, I'm on my way home." It was the wife.
"OK, see you soon."
Within two minutes, watery eyes and irritated asthmatic lungs accompanied my sneezes. I looked into the frying pan to see a great multitude of seeds escaping from their former peppery abodes adding that "extra kick" to every bit of meat and each drop of sauce. Before I could throw open a window to release some of the capsaicin-saturated air, the front door opened. The wife was home, and by the time I could greet her at the front door, she was coughing and sneezing, unable to utter anything more than "Hi." The entire first floor was filled with a nose-and-eye-burning smoky haze.
"I made you dinner," I told her, ashamed. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, great, thank you," she replied sweetly, eyes tearing.
"I don't think you want to eat it."
"Sure I do," she assured me.
I took her at her word, prepared dinner plates with kung pao chicken and white rice. I watched nervously as she ate her first bite. She looked pleasantly surprised. She ate another bite. Then a third. As she slowly chewed her third bite, her demeanor transitioned from cautious to panic-stricken. "Milk," she whispered loudly.
"What?" I asked for clarification.
"MILK! NOW!" She clutched her throat with one hand and fanned her face with the other.
I ran upstairs to pour her a glass of milk, but she couldn't wait--she was right behind me and grabbed the glass out of my hand and rapidly chugged its contents.
She looked at me and I at her. I followed her as she returned to our dinner plates, tall glass of milk in hand. We muscled through the rest of our meal, barely speaking, heavily breathing, frequently sipping milk.
After the kung pao chicken inferno, the toasted chocolate chip cookies provided unanticipated sweet relief. Previous adventures in dinner preparation should have prepared me for such a fiery outcome.
The Valentine's Day Taste Bud Massacre of 2008 was an unanticipated testing ground for our relationship. That my wife was still sitting on the couch next to me bodes well for our future together.
For now, however, I will stay out of the kitchen.