Photo: Marcus Nilsson
If you saw me a few Saturdays ago, you'd swear that I was born to cook. I even believed it myself as I sashayed out of the fancy-pants gourmet market clutching two bags of really important-looking groceries. Dangling on one arm: a plastic sack bursting with leeks, fresh herbs, a bottle of champagne vinegar, and a bag of Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate baking chips. On the other: a pound and a half of Yellow Finn potatoes, a pack of raw hazelnuts, a dozen organic eggs, and six stunning fillets of $22-a-pound Chilean sea bass. I picked up a tub of ricotta and a few ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano from the Italian deli up the street, then popped into the liquor store for some dry vermouth and Frangelico. For a few blissful moments, I thought I was Nigella Lawson. And then I got home.
Back in my own kitchen—my barren, unrenovated, apartment-size kitchen—the sea bass looked grandiose, the Frangelico out of place. All the ingredients, in fact, seemed to taunt, "You've no idea what to do with us, have you?" I realized I had never in my life touched a raw leek—and I panicked.
I am an inhibited cook. That is not to say that I'm an inhibited eater. I can spend an hour savoring a slice of flourless chocolate cake, letting each bite melt onto my tongue. I'm on a first-name basis with the owner of a little French BYO nearby, where I sip red wine between bites of goat-cheese-and-ratatouille crepe. I fantasize about making these things in my own kitchen. I pore over cookbooks as if they're porn when I'm alone, imagining my fingers doing wild things with fresh cardamom pods and Arborio rice. My husband wishes I'd experiment more, but something holds me back. Inevitably, I wind up making the same joyless chicken stir-fry—the missionary position on a plate.
So, I hatched a plan: Like a character on a reality TV show who conquers her phobias by cuddling snakes or jumping from a plane, I would prepare an extravagant four-course dinner for six people, one of whom trained at the French Culinary Institute. Or I'd fail miserably and be forced to feed my guests canned chicken noodle soup. Either way, by the end of the evening, I would have confronted my culinary inhibitions. The dishes I chose seemed ambitious, yet somehow feasible: a salad of hazelnuts and oranges followed by homemade ricotta gnocchi, Chilean sea bass with leeks and potatoes, and, finally, chocolate pots de crème.
No sooner had I set out to make the meal than I had a showdown with my first inhibition: fear of fat. I'm the kind of person who looks at a bottle of olive oil and thinks, 120 calories per tablespoon. I've spent my entire adult life tossing egg yolks down the kitchen drain and using only the whites, and shunning cheeses whose packages didn't read "lite" or "part skim." And while I'll gladly eat butter and cream when they're hidden inside a chocolate bread pudding someone else has made, I can't stand to be the person responsible for using them. I feel guilty just seeing them on my kitchen counter.
My gnocchi called for full-fat everything: ricotta as thick as cement, three large whole eggs, and a sauce made from 13 (13!) tablespoons of melted butter. The only nonfatty part of this dish was the plate of flour I dredged the dumplings in after I had formed them—or, in this case, malformed them. I tried to take pleasure in rocking each fleshy wad of goo between my palms; tried to imagine them arranged on the plate glistening with butter. And suddenly, I felt nauseated, pushed to the outer limits of my fat phobia. I finished forming just 24 of the 48 gnocchi, slid them into the fridge, and dumped the rest of the batter into the garbage.