Baby steps in the kitchen

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

My husband wanted to hard-boil a couple of eggs for breakfast. So, he put them in a pot of water to boil and told me he would pop into the shower, and to watch the pot so it wouldn't boil over.

"It's boiling over!" I screamed a couple of minutes later. "What should I do?"

He popped his head around the door, cross.

"Just turn down the heat."

I turned it down. Except that instead of a low simmer, I had switched off the fire.

The eggs bobbed around in the pot. One of them had fractured and a trail of egg white unspooled behind it, taunting me, as if I was responsible for cracking open its skull.

"Honey," I whispered through the bathroom door, "how do I turn on the stove again?" I could feel my husband's eyes rolling into the back of his head.

I'll admit - I have absolutely no inclination towards the kitchen. I'm afraid of fire and the sputter of oil, I clearly still need help turning on a stove and am more worried about the smell of food sticking to my lovely fresh laundry than soaking up the delicious aromas. Does that make me a bad wife? Not in this day and age, thankfully.

I like order and hygiene and clean surfaces and, when my husband cooks, I clean everything in sight. Spots on the counter, an oily plate that once held streaky bacon, shreds of garlic skin drifting around on the floor. My husband has repeatedly told me we will not die if the kitchen is not spotless. (But I swear he's secretly glad he doesn't have to do much, or any, of the washing up.)

Many of my friends turned into Martha Stewart the moment they got their own kitchens, but sadly, I'm far from even attempting to be an amateur homecook.

I did learn some of the basics in university, when confronted with nothing ready-made in our pantry. I could, at least, stir-fry instant noodles with bacon and chopped mushrooms and I could probably scramble an egg. That's the extent of my culinary experience.

My sister, on the other hand, is an avid baker. Another of my friends regularly throws together delicious cakes of her own invention and recently gave us some aromatic homemade granola.

And yet another, who invited us to his home for dinner last week, put together a mind-numbing and palate-popping entree of sous vide salmon with soubise fluid gel (a sort of foodgasm-inducing French onion cream), watercress puree and pickled daikon, plated beautifully with a dash of peppercorn and Hawaiian black salt. Each element was made from scratch.

I sometimes feel a pang of envy when I see friends and acquaintances posting pictures of their kitchen successes: succulent pork belly wrapped in bacon, pistachio-crusted salmon, gobs of homemade hummus. In food-obsessed Singapore, it feels only natural that you create gastronomical feasts of your own.

However, something about the unpredictability of the food-creation process unnerves me. Everyone's told me to just follow a recipe, but a million things could go wrong between steps 1 and 2. What if the food comes out raw despite my attention to detail? Or what if I burn it instead? What if there's a gas leak and the kitchen explodes?

Of course, these are completely irrational fears and I've never been burned before, which always leaves me puzzling over my stove phobia.

So, I've been trying to become more handy in the kitchen, helping my husband to chop vegetables (I'm still wary of onions) or push stuff around in a pan.

I suppose, with these baby steps, I need to come to terms with the fact that things won't always go according to plan.

You have to improvise in the kitchen sometimes, adjusting a dish for personal taste. And sometimes you can't help but leave a trail of trash in your wake - one that can be easily cleaned up after. Maybe I'll never be able to master the art of fine cooking.

However, with a kitchen at my disposal, at least I've come face to face with just how much further I have to go to conquer my fears.

For now, I'm content to be a kitchen elf and sous chef of sorts. And I'm still glad we have fire insurance. Just in case.

corriet@sph.com.sg