The conversation

One couple’s approach to making dinner

March 7, 2008

Their workdays are behind them and the sun is getting low in the sky. “What do you want for dinner?” he asks.

“Delicious,” she replies opaquely. Bewildered, he probes, “What does that mean?”

Once again, The Conversation has begun.

Whether we have it with another person or just with ourselves, we all know the pattern this dialogue assumes. The Conversation tends to start every day around 5 o’clock in the evening. The topic: what to make for dinner. The tone: anticipatory or resigned. The subtext: an ongoing give-and-take about what a meal cooked and eaten at home should look like. This is where it’s easy to get stuck.

“While it’s not my intent, this kind of exchange occasionally drives Kevin completely crazy,” says his wife, Erin McGovney. “I don’t always know what I want to eat, and I’m hoping that Kevin will create something delicious and creative.”

Meet Erin and Kevin McGovney. She’s a realtor; he’s a chef. Most nights, they view dinner as a reaction to their respective lunches.

Fit into a whirlwind of touring houses, her lunch on this day was an American cliché: tuna-noodle casserole and doughnuts laid out by caterers, eaten on the run. Kevin had better luck; staff chow at the Italian restaurant where he works was a late-afternoon smorgasbord of leftover meat sugos, panini, and long-simmered braises.

Fresh herbs can be the starting point for a meal.

Delicious, yes, but tonight he craves something simple. And she’ll want a meal more balanced and zesty than her 1955-era casserole. The question remains on the table: What’s for dinner?

The voyeur

At the grocery store, I steal glances at other people’s shopping carts. I don’t even mind checkout lines, because it gives me the chance to scrutinize what other people are planning to eat.

From what I observe at my local markets, prepared and convenience foods are edging out actual ingredients (aka whole foods) in the race down the conveyor belt and into our grocery bags, kitchens, and bellies.

But not at Erin and Kevin’s house. Since Kevin’s a chef (and a co-worker of mine), their kitchen is full of whole foods, and they cook from scratch all the time. Still, responsibility for a series of meals at home means meeting an additional set of requirements. Compared to restaurant dining, homemade meals have to be more wholesome and affordable as well as faster to prepare. And, as the audience never changes, it’s hard to get away with serving the same menu night after night.

What I like about Erin and Kevin’s approach to the daily conundrum of dinner is this: They expect the process to be not just challenging, but fun.

Take it outside

Accustomed to restaurant stoves with mega-BTUs and a flaming wood-burning oven, Kevin likes to keep the home fires burning. He lights his home grill year-round, seeking flavors he just can’t get from an ordinary electric stove; the result is trout, chicken, steak, and pizza treated with a smoky, high-heat char. On dark nights, he dons a headlamp. “My neighbors think I’m crazy because I’ll be out there in the rain with a chicken,” he says.

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That chicken, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, gets served with garlic-smashed potatoes. Kevin makes his mash from Yukon Gold potatoes left unpeeled and cut into big chunks; the chunks are boiled with whole cloves of garlic, then drained and smashed with a potato masher. He finishes the dish with sea salt, olive oil, and bits of rosemary plucked from the back yard.

Bringing the outdoors in

Before I knew him, Kevin managed a farmers’ market, so it’s second nature for him to decide what to cook for dinner while scoping out produce stalls. At other times, he just delves into his perennial herb garden, where he finds touches to elevate the ordinary.

Every Sunday, Kevin simmers a pot of white beans as the Italians would, with sage leaves, garlic, and plenty of good green olive oil. The cooked beans then become a quick gratin with herbs and crunchy breadcrumbs. Sometimes he mixes roasted vegetables into the beans for a vegetarian take on cassoulet.

Last summer, gardening fever hit hard. “We had so much arugula it almost crippled us,” he recalls. When they weren’t eating enough salad to keep up, Kevin knew it was time to harvest the whole crop before it bolted (flowered), which makes the leaves taste bitter.

He and Erin took care of the problem with the help of their professional-strength Vita-Mix blender. “It can turn rocks into pebbles,” he says. “It’s an incredibly brutal, powerful machine.” The blender pulverized the peppery leaves into a pesto with walnuts, lemon, olive oil, and cheese and quickly replaced tomato sauce on homemade pizzas. (The McGovneys froze the arugula pesto in ice-cube trays and then stored the cubes in ziplock freezer bags.)

Homemade limoncello liqueur.

Naturally, Kevin makes pizza on a blazing grill. He grills store-bought dough on one side for 2 to 3 minutes, flips it over with a pair of tongs, brushes on the pesto, and scatters other toppings such as roasted red onions, salt-cured black olives, and dabs of a soft white cheese, such as mascarpone. “Don’t walk away,” he cautions. “There’s a border between caramelized and carbonized.”

She’s no flunky

Despite his easy approach to food, Kevin credits Erin’s role as “the fun coordinator.” Indeed, while Erin says she climbed a steep learning curve for cooking when she met Kevin, she’s now the one who brings menu ideas to the table.

She calls herself a food-media junkie and omnivorously scours magazines, blogs, and websites. Once an obsession is sparked, she runs with it for weeks.

“I play with my food. I definitely get on kicks,” she says. “There is something so deeply satisfying about opening the fridge or the cupboard and seeing so many items that I have made. Right now there are 7 or 8 kinds of jam, canned tomatoes, pickles, limoncello, quince brandy, butter, stock, dog bones, and croutons.”

Recent jags include matzo-ball soup, whole-grain pilafs from Peter Berley’s cookbooks, and The Silver Palate Cookbook’s venerable classic of prunes, green olives, and white wine, Chicken Marbella.

Kevin’s there for tech support. “After I’ve made something the first time,” Erin says, “I always want to have a wrap-up: how it tastes, the technical merits, what I should do differently the next time.” Adds Erin, “I’m really into making butter right now. It’s so easy, and looks so cute in the fridge wrapped in wax paper. Yogurt might be next.”

Bringing it home

Drawing inspiration from Kevin’s outdoorsy approach, I set out to make my own dinner. March’s warmth is coaxing abundant growth from Pacific Northwest perennials like chives and tarragon. I borrowed Kevin’s idea of stirring fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice into polenta, but wanted an entrée. Spring herbs made me think of chicken.

Fresh bay laurel leaves are perfumed, even floral, so I decided to add them to the chicken as a complement to the herbs in the polenta. I’m lucky to have bay growing in my yard, but dried leaves could be substituted; just choose those grown in the Mediterranean rather than California, which are too strong in flavor.

I used boneless chicken thighs for the dark meat’s flavor and to keep the dish moist. Without the bone in the meat, I could sauté it quickly and avoid a lengthy braise.

Thinking of Erin, who appreciates the added flourish of a pan sauce, I deglazed the sauté pan with white wine. I served the polenta with a dollop of mascarpone, which melted and mixed quite congenially with the chicken and its sauce. (Any seasonal green vegetable — fresh salad or sautéed chard — would also go well with this early spring dinner.) I served my meal with an Arneis, a flowery white wine with a hint of almond, perfect for a light dish with fresh green elements.

In making this dinner, I followed the Erin-and-Kevin process: building around a single ingredient, in this case herbs. I liked the conversation I had with myself as a result. Instead of following the same well-trodden paths, I got to wander in the herb-scented woods for a while. And the results were, as Erin requested, delicious.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon.

There is 1 comment on this item
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1. by Liz Crain on Mar 14, 2008 at 10:31 AM PDT

My bay laurel is finally big enough to start clipping from and so I can’t wait to use this recipe. Thanks.

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