Fear less, or: Easier, better, slower, lazier.

As I write, the sweet potatoes I sent back into the oven seem to have decided to cooperate. That is, my kitchen smells like sweet potatoes. (A rule we all kinda know: When you can smell what it is you’re cooking, it’s probably done.)

See, I’m attempting to make sweet potato gnocchi.

Those who know me know that I do not bake. And while gnocchi, I will obviously grant, fall into no one’s conception of baked goods, I will also confess that when I say, “I don’t bake,” I really mean, “I don’t make anything that involves dough.”

So I’m a little bit scared. More than that, though, I’m hopeful. See, I’m trying this new thing called “assuming that things are just as likely to be blindingly awesome as they are to be a complete failure” (see also: optimism), so I’m also kind of relishing the half-possible fantasy of producing some damn fine gnocchi and the accompanying conclusion that, actually, I can do things I used to think I couldn’t do.

While the potatoes bake, I’m reviewing old I’m trying/not trying to impress/seduce you playlists on my half-busted old iPod. The thing only speaks to me via speaker dock now, so plumbing old music means I have to fill my entire apartment with it; sit in it. I’m trying to decide if the bits & pieces of soundtracks for dinner dates past might be useful for dinner dates present. So far the answer appears to be “no.” Because the date appears to be different.

The music swims around me. Folk with man’s voice, folk with woman’s voice (“Let this Cat Power song be your guide to my probably misguided feelings for you”) (is it weird that most of my retrospectives manifest themselves like a Someecard?), old soul, new soul, post-soul electronica, and a couple of rather overtly sexy hip-hop tracks (“No seriously, I am trying to seduce you”).

I can’t say these were, like, failsafe jams. (By any means.) Part anthem, part valentine, they were the soundtrack to the life I had and the parallel life that sometimes pushed against the window as my train trundled past, slipped back under the door early, early in the morning in the moments before I woke up, blew my hair forward into my face, somehow, as I rode into lake wind. They had, now that I think about it, very little to do with with the dinner guest and everything to do with me. They gave me confidence; they were a crutch.

For the other leg (since, in this extended metaphor, I’m apparently some kind of socioemotional paraplegic), I had my repertoire. Everyone – okay, everyone who cooks for people they care about – has a repertoire. Mine consisted of dishes that were, ideally:

a) deceptively simple in composition;
b) low to moderate in time commitment (everything could be done in under an hour);
c) probably inclusive of some type of cured/salted pork product.

And it’s not that these dishes weren’t good. In fact, they kicked a lot of ass. But like my playlists, they were more about covering my own nervous bases than factors like seasonality, or working toward goals of cooking new things, or the tastes of my guest (though, truth told, criterion C usually took care of that one).

So more recently I’ve been moving toward a different approach in cooking for/with others. In general, I feel like I’ve become a lot more flexible and forgiving of myself in the last several months. I rarely get my apron in a twist anymore over substitutions, bad emulsions, botched proportions, etc. And in particular, in the last month or so, I’ve started to open up to a newer, though by no means novel, priority: Enjoyment of present company.


Because, and this is what I’ve been getting at all along: Making dinner for a dude was always really just about personal validation.

But now, the sweet potatoes resting on the counter and waiting to be peeled, I restlessly skip through track after track. I’m finding it difficult to latch on to any songs from old lists, just as I found myself less than enchanted by the dishes in my trusty repertoire.

So I’m going rogue. Not for the sake of badassery; more because I care less about what’s coming out of the speakers and how the food turns out (I do have a high enough baseline of kitchen confidence that I know nothing I make will be horrid) than I care about who I get to hang out with.

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Dinner party snapshots…

(all photos courtesy of DPO)

Gruyere, St. Andre triple creme, meet Dude. Dude, meet Gruyere and St. Andre triple creme.
(Jeanelle, meet Eola Hills pinot noir. *Swoon.*)

The gnocchi (super not-daunting recipe here) turned out relatively well for a first go. I would use a bit more salt; a bit less nutmeg next time. And yes, there will be a next time, because I b’lieve I’ve conquered my fear of flouring. (OH! OH IT’S A PUN! DO YOU SEE?!)

We made fresh ricotta to go on top, along with a walnut-pine nut-sage pesto. Please excuse my bright, folky dinner plates. They’re charming when they’re not a backdrop for styled food, I promise.

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Upon tasting the finished product, Dude did a jubilant shuffle from my kitchen to my door and back. I laughed, partly out of sheer amusement, and partly out of surprise and relief that both of us, apparently, dance when we taste good things.

I don’t remember what music we played; I just know there was a lot of it. (Okay, I do remember Paul Simon’s Graceland. And an hour-long podcasted DJ set. Everything else, blur.) I had big plans for a prettied-up version of rice pudding for dessert. We didn’t make it; we were too full. Instead, we laid on the couch doing impressions of weird YouTube videos and talking about Baltimore hip-hop and blowing raspberries into the crooks of each others’ elbows. No one was trying to seduce anyone, mainly because no one had to try.

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