"Choose your ingredients."
At the apartment of the guy I was dating, I stood in front of a fully stocked refrigerator, shelves packed with homemade pickles, chicken stock and a flavor wheel of condiments.
I was intrigued.
He chose scallops, which meant I was in charge of sides.
I pulled bacon first. He followed with tomatoes, then garlic. I paired bacon with sweet corn and shallots and hastily grabbed leeks.
Cooking with a significant other wasn't something I had considered until he invited me to join him in the kitchen.
I already knew this guy had skills. The first time he cooked for me, he whipped together a roasted jalapeno soup, carnitas and huitlacoche tacos, the latter stuffed with a type of mushroom that grows on corn. (Nothing says romance like corn smut.)
The velvety soup was garnished with a cream flourish. Carnitas were crisped in lard. And huitlacoche was a deliciously savory gamble. It was then that I learned he had been a line cook at a prestigious Boston restaurant before becoming a surgeon.
When I considered his cooking invitation, I imagined I would be chopping herbs and drinking wine while he spatchcocked a chicken faster than a rabbit on a dog track.
I figured I'd be the beta. Obviously, he had other designs.
On each side of his Viking kitchen island, he set up butcher block stations with chef knives and bowls for mise en place to assemble a simple meal. He caramelized scallops and whisked together a tomato herb pan sauce. I made a bacon and sweet corn hash. I might have braised leeks in olive oil and butter.
Though more sparks flew in the kitchen than between us, what made the event memorable was the ease of two cooks in the kitchen -- both holding equal responsibility. I have yet to experience that again.
I'm not alone in finding this scenario an anomaly.
Can two play the lead in the kitchen? How to sear, saute or season can become an issue when a couple has clashing sensibilities of how and what to cook. Yet some couples finesse differences through diplomacy rather than sharp elbows and knife skills.
Divide and conquer
"Normally, I do the cooking and he does the cleanup," said Sherrie Flick, an MFA professor in creative writing at Chatham University and a novelist. She and her husband, Rick Schweikert, have been married for 15 years and live on the South Side Slopes.
Having met at the University of Nebraska, Ms. Flick said he was then a "proficient cook," but that he "was not a food person." That has slowly changed.
Ms. Flick, a pescetarian, has found other ways to share kitchen responsibilities besides two cooks at the stove.
Her husband always works the grill, cooking fish or vegetables from their vast garden. "We have decided what we really like to do whether it goes for or against gender roles," she said.
Being in the same space with different responsibilities works best for them. "We actually like the roles being kind of separate."
Their collaboration occurs more often in shopping, particularly for holiday meals such as Valentine's Day or Christmas Eve.
"We really enjoy going through cookbooks to decide what to make," she said. "Then the next day, we'll go down to the Strip. Rick stands with a number at the cheese line at Pennsylvania Macaroni while I pull things from shelves. It's kind of a fun day."
Kelsey Weisgerber, food service director at the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, has been dating Legume bar manager Will Groves since August 2011. When it's feasible, she says, they cook together at home.
They, too, like the anticipation that shopping adds to the experience. As a volunteer during the summer at the Farmers@ Firehouse in the Strip, she enjoys the ritual of perusing the market Saturdays for Sunday supper. They also shop at Whole Foods "religiously," she said.
Dinners usually involve something unusual, since "I'm vegetarian and he's adventurous," she said.
That's not to say home cooking experiences are free of tension. "I hate it when someone looks over my shoulder," said Ms. Weisgerber, describing herself as a "Chaos Muppet" and Mr. Groves as an "Order Muppet," a reference to Dahlia Lithwick's Slate article on the "Muppet Theory" of human classification.
"He measures coffee to the point gram. I'm way more lax," she said, noting her tendency to plan on the fly. "But Will is always really nice about it."
She emphasizes Will's sensitivity in his handling her stint as a vegan.
"Finally, he just admitted, 'I don't like vegan food,' " she recalled. " 'I just want to cook with butter and cheese again.' "
Ms. Weisgerber deferred.
James Isler and his wife Erin of Shadyside started their courtship by cooking for each other. "Having two chefs in the kitchen can be tricky," Mr. Isler said. The couple met while working together at PNC Bank six years ago. They have been married just over a year.
The Islers take turns cooking because of differing styles. Mr. Isler describes his wife as a classic home cook who leans toward French and Italian cuisine as well as American comfort foods.
"I like to experiment," he said, citing his passion for Indian, Thai and Chinese dishes. He has also taken on recipes from Nathan Myhrvold's "Modernist Cuisine at Home," which "always requires ingredients not found in an everyday kitchen," he said, "like xantham gum" (a thickening agent).
Mr. Isler recalls loving his first meal at Ms. Isler's home: a Gourmet magazine recipe of tuna with ginger and an asparagus risotto. "I was going for Asian flavors because I knew he liked them," she said.
On another occasion, Mr. Isler made Ming Tsai's chicken chow mein with baby bok choy seasoned with savory oyster sauce and spicy sambal oelek. "It's incredibly simple and delicious," he said. The recipe remains in their cooking repertoire.
Ms. Flick said the first meal she made for her husband is also a go-to, even though "we don't tend to recycle recipes."
Her tone turned nostalgic as she recalled a meal of green bean and sweet potato turnovers she served with potato leek soup.
It was then she knew Mr. Schweikert "is a good eater." Anything else, she said, would have been a deal breaker.
"It's in the fine print of our marriage license that I will eat whatever she makes as well as the leftovers," said Mr. Schweikert. "Luckily, I have a fast metabolism."
Word to the wise
Each couple offered advice to maintain romance in the kitchen. "Make sure one person doesn't become the dominant cook," said Mr. Isler, who takes turns deciding what to cook with his wife.
"Split up tasks," suggests Ms. Weisgerber. Couples can follow the Flick/Schweikert example and differentiate skills. In addition to working the grill, Mr. Schweikert has become quite the home bartender, as he incorporates Ms. Flick's homemade syrups and other concoctions into their cocktails.
Having different tasks often helps conversation, too, said Mr. Schweikert. "Sometimes it's good to talk when you're not staring each other in the face. It can be easier to have a heady conversation when you have something else to focus on."
Ms. Flick also suggests setting the tone. "We always light candles and dine by candlelight when we sit down to dinner," she said. "It's one of our best rituals. It makes the world sane."
Chicken Chow Mein
This recipe is the basis for the first dish James Isler made for Erin when they started dating six years ago. It remains in their recipe rotation.
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
1/2 cup oyster sauce
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1 bunch scallions, white and green parts, sliced 1/8-inch thick
1 tablespoon sambal oelek (use 1 teaspoon if you don't like things too spicy)
1 pound chicken meat, preferably from legs and thighs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound fresh or dried lo mein (egg noodles)
5 tablespoons canola oil, divided
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups quartered fresh shiitake mushrooms
4 heads bok choy, cored and cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, combine the cornstarch and wine and mix. Stir in the oyster sauce, ginger, scallions and the sambal oelek. Add chicken. Stir to coat and allow to marinate at least 2 hours but preferably overnight.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add lo mein and cook for about 5 minutes for fresh or 10-15 minutes for dried until it's al dente. Drain and run under cold water. Transfer to a bowl and stir in tablespoon of canola oil. Set aside.
Heat a wok or a cast-iron pan over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and swirl to coat. When the oil shimmers, add the garlic and shiitakes and stir-fry until the mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes.
Remove the mushrooms and set aside. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil and, when hot, add the chicken and stir-fry until almost cooked through, 6-8 minutes. Add bok choy and stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Add stock and season with the salt and pepper to taste. Add the reserved shiitakes and the noodles. Stir to coat and heat through, about 5 minutes. Season to taste and serve.
-- Ming Tsai
Spicy Green Bean Sweet Potato Turnovers
This recipe from Sherrie Flick is one of the first dishes she made her husband of 15 years.
For the crust:
1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour, plus some for dusting work surface
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into about 8 pieces
About 3 tablespoons ice water, plus more as needed
For the filling:
1 medium-sized sweet potato, cooked and finely diced
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1/4- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
1/2 cup green beans, chopped in half
2 tablespoons water
Salt and pepper
DIRECTIONS FOR THE CRUST:
Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the container of a food processor. Pulse once or twice. Add the butter and turn on the machine. Process until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture looks like cornmeal, about 10 seconds.
Place the mixture in a bowl and sprinkle 3 tablespoons of water over it. Use a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula to gradually gather the mixture into a ball. If the mixture seems dry, add another 1/2 tablespoon ice water.
When you can make the mixture into a ball with your hands, do so. Wrap in plastic wrap, flatten into a small disk, and freeze the dough for 10 minutes or refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will ease rolling.
DIRECTIONS FOR FILLING:
Preheat oven to 400. Bring a small pan of salted water to boil. Rough-chop sweet potato, with the skin off or on. Boil until sweet potato is soft enough to give when forked. Drain then set aside.
Saute onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes. Add ginger and all of the spices. Stir. Add diced sweet potato and green beans and water. Cook for 4-5 minutes or until green beans begin to cook and turn a vibrant green.
Turn off heat and allow mixture to cool. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
DIRECTIONS FOR ASSEMBLY:
Lightly flour a surface to keep the dough circles from sticking. Roll out the dough into 6 small 4-inch circles.
Place a dollop of filling into each circle. Fold the dough over the filling and carefully crimp edges similar to the edge of a pie crust.
Slit the top of the turnover with a fork to create a vent. Brush with milk, if desired. The milk glaze will give them a more refined look.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the crust is golden.
-- Sherrie Flick (crust recipe by Mark Bittman)
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @melissamccart