The ‘joy’ of cooking

I reek of garlic and red wine, with beef after-tones. When I walk through the kitchen, Rilian’s nose goes straight up in the air, and he inhales deeply, with sincere appreciation. When I went upstairs to give Bill a chance to watch the Patriots game alone (it’s a gift I give my spouse occasionally), and give the stew its first two hours of cooking, I noticed that the smell wasn’t just on me. That delicious French perfume is permeating the entire house.

I’m making beef bourguignon, a la Julia Child.

I make this dish exactly once a year. The first time I made it, I remember thinking: “This is three pages of single-spaced instructions. Do I really want to commit to it?” I didn’t, really, but also didn’t want to commit to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding again. I simply hated that I resented my guests, because I had to spend so much time in the kitchen. I didn’t get to truly enjoy seeing them when I was cooking all that, and I made a last-minute rush to serve when the pudding was finally perfect. It was delicious. But I did not like my mood afterward.

Cooking is – hopefully – an action done from love (or hunger), and if you are lucky, you enjoy it. There are times I have loved cooking so entirely that it nearly made me swoon. Making Lucy vanilla custard when she was little was an entirely joyful process. It’s easy to make, Lucy loved standing on a chair stirring, she liked seeing me create a bain marie (hot water bath, pardon my French) by pouring water into the pan with the custard cups. But the look on her face as she ate? Priceless. Bringing my friend Mikki homemade chicken soup when she was ill and having her say that she had never had anything so good made me feel like I had won a prize. Roasting a chicken stuffed with lemons and rosemary and having my dinner guests say: “Are we having dessert? I kind of hope not, because I’d rather have more chicken.”

These are the moments a cook treasures.

Balanced against those moments are the true disasters: the year I forgot to take the giblets out of the Thanksgiving turkey and cooked it with a plastic bag of them inside the cavity was not my best fowl, though it was foul. Besides that, I was afraid to tell anyone I had done it and waited for calls about food poisoning all night long. Once, I made a truly magnificent, giant strawberry shortcake and substituted baking soda for baking powder, creating an incredibly bitter cake: imagine a giant piece of aspirin covered in strawberries and whipped cream. Or the time I decided to bake fish and created something that I could eat only one bite of, and that I spit out. When I left it out for the neighborhood cats, they sniffed it and turned up their noses. Enough said.

So, I have mixed feelings about cooking. I like to be creative in the kitchen and I like to experiment, but I also like things to taste good. I like my family to smile when I place a delicious dish before them. And there are things that always get a smile: in my house, beef bourguignon is one of them.

But I also like to enjoy the process of preparing food, so if a recipe has more than a page of instructions, you can usually count me out. But this beef bourginon recipe, although it takes a lot of time, is actually straightforward: you prepare a lot of things in different steps, and then you combine them all together at the end. And serve them over mashed potatoes. In my house, with a salad and a large glass of red wine, this is Christmas dinner.

I am not unappreciative of the traditional Christmas turkey. But I do not enjoy making it, particularly as my husband feels that turkey is an oversized dry chicken. (Or, so he claims, at least the way I prepare it.)

And this year, for dessert, Lucy is making Mary Berry’s Christmas Pavlova. It’s a crisp, chewy, slightly sweet meringue ring, covered in whipped cream and berries. It’s pretty; it’s delicious; and it’s a light finish to a wonderful meal.

I have to go.

Only 48 more tiny onions to peel.

June Lemen is a freelance writer from Nashua. Her column appears the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Email her at