"Come on over", he said, inviting me to a home-cooked meal. "What’s for dinner this time?", I asked. It had been a while since I trusted my good friend to lavish me with his version of haute cuisine . Last time I was there, he waited about 10 minutes too long to take the dessert souffles out of the oven, even though he had tested them for doneness right at the half-hour mark and determined that they had been totally cooked. I remember the moment well. "Shouldn’t you remove those from the oven?", I asked. "Nah – they look done, but believe me, they aren’t. They can take another few minutes – I’ve done this before, trust me", he said, in an almost chiding tone. When he removed the ramekins from their water bath, they looked leathery and tired. Inedible, these sad attempts at pastry basically ruined a fantastic meal. Clearly my friend tried to overdo it, getting that extra little lift when there was no lift to get. So I was nervous about another meal with him. Who knew what would happen this time.
"I’m braising stuff tonight – it’s impossible to screw up" he offered, quite confidently. "Short ribs. The best – you just let them stew for hours, if need be. You can’t possibly mess them up". When I arrived they were already in the oven, cooking along quite efficiently. He said he had browned them well, getting a good caramelization right at the start, searing them on high heat and moving them to a casserole dish and then into the oven, where they would remain for a minimum of two hours, but where they could stew for up to four – a huge window of opportunity for culinary delight. We sat, had a glass of wine, reminisced. At the 90 minute mark, he shot up out of his chair. "Time to get them out.". "Why?", I asked. "Not sure what is telling me this, they didn’t look done when I last checked, but I have a strange feeling they’re finished". I protested, quite effusively. "They can’t be done. Don’t take them out. You’ll regret it. They’ll be tough and undercooked. You can leave them in. Please, leave them in", I implored. But he was having none of it. Out they came, plated, and served almost immediately: no rest for this weary cut of meat. Chewy, with the texture of rawhide, the short ribs had been wrested from the process far too early. They weren’t, as I feared, ready to come out.
I promised never to go back to Terry’s house for dinner again. I just can’t take the "cooking by hunch" thing. There’s science in it, but my friend disavowed that science at the moments when our gustatory pleasure depended on it. No more, I thought. From here on in, I cook my own meals. And then the invitation came. Tonight. 8:10pm. I thought about it for a while. Should I go? What kind of bizarre confection will get mangled tonight? Will he drop the decanter full of ’82 Lafite? Will he remember to get the cobbler into the oven to warm up, in time for the close of the meal? Will he go on hunch, or will he make sure the juices are running clear? So many questions. But then I realized it’s an impossible offer to turn down. It’s free. There’s a good chance it will go well. He always works with great ingredients, and his third course is usually pretty reliable. I have to give him the chance, I suppose. Even though he may not have the perfect touch in the kitchen, he’s still better than most. I just have to know how this meal turns out.