Imagine an appetizer made of globe grapes, sliced in half with the flesh scooped out of the middle. The rim dipped in toasted chopped walnuts, the cavity filled with herbed goat cheese.
If this sounds like an unnecessarily fussy Martha Stewart appetizer, that’s because it is.
I also tend to credit this dish as the genesis of my love of cooking, especially of recipes that are “unnecessarily” complex.
“Why are you making deviled quail eggs? Why not just use regular ones?”
“This isn’t any worse than stuffed grapes!”
I’ve always helped my grandmother in the kitchen. She loves to host dinner parties, sometimes for family, sometimes for friends. Her dining table seats twenty, maybe more, and she likes to fill every chair. She even sells seats for a dinner party at her church auction every year, and it is well-attended. Despite being a Gentile, she hosts a Seder every year — in my opinion because it’s one more dinner party she can throw, but also because one of her dear old friends Maury isn’t able to do it on his own. The woman loves to feed people.
And of course, she loves having little sous chefs.
One of the most frequent assignments was adding butter and sour cream to the mound of boiled potatoes before turning on the Kitchenaid mixer — which admittedly, as far as cooking tasks go, is… small potatoes (sorry). But it’s a great task for kids. I also did a lot of stirring: simmering gravy, brownie batters, soups. When it came to putting things into things and maybe stirring it some, I was a champion.
Then there were the stuffed grapes. I was about ten years old, sitting on the step stool at the kitchen bar while my grandmother prepared for one of her parties. She mostly goes for the veggie trays and hummus these days, but fifteen years ago she was going for the gold, yo. She sliced dozens of grapes, and may have scooped them too. But then she put my little fingers to work: dipping the grapes in the nuts, rolling tiny balls of chevre, then placing them in the divot without disturbing the crunchy halo.
The thing is, I rarely cooked at home. My father was never much of a cook, and was busy working and raising three kids on his own. With all of that, plus trying to carve out some time where he could relax, home cooking wasn’t high on his list. So we relied on a lot of convenience food. Yes, I helped my grandmother cook at her house, but it never seemed like a thing that regular people did. Food came out of boxes, cans, and drive-through windows. Even when I became a vegetarian at thirteen, it was still easy enough. After all, there was a KFC/Taco Bell combo a few miles away; I could get a bean burrito and my siblings could have chicken fingers.
In college, I cooked nothing but scrambled eggs with various things on top, pasta with various things on top, and heated up canned soup. I was trying to eat less junk food, but my kitchen skills were limited to the very basic on one end, and then special occasion foods that I had made with my grandmother on the other. Something had to give.
So what else could I do? I learned how to cook. Without the internet, I don’t know what I would have done. But with YouTube videos, food blogs, and some calls to my grandmother, I started my transition to making and eating real, good food. Following and then adapting recipes, learning techniques to transfer to other foods, and acquiring a few too many kitchen gadgets. And luckily, my early training in watching my grandmother improvise in the kitchen seems to have paid off.
At the time the stuffed grape incident, I think I scoffed at my grandmother — all this work for a grape! It’s gone in one bite! I didn’t even get to taste the creation, because as a picky child I was not down with the goat cheese (thankfully, my palate has matured).
Now I get it. The interplay of sweet, juicy, crunchy, salty, tangy, creamy, all in one bite. Worth it.
I still love making cocktail vittles, but the lesson applies to so much more. Cooking is a process. It takes time and effort, and then it’s gone in a blink. Sometimes I get home from work and am so exhausted that all I can do is boil some pasta and throw some gross jarred pesto on top. And you know what? I’m usually disappointed. Taking the time to make food that looks and tastes extra special, food that delights and sometimes surprises? So worth it.
This is not to say that everything I make is complicated. I work a full time job, have hobbies, maintain personal relationships, and spend way too much time playing with my ferret. I’m not making extravagant meals every night of the week. But still, I try to eat well, and eat tasty.
So there you go. Vegetarian food, sometimes fancy, sometimes modest, always delicious.