cooking and adulthood

spending senior spring with food and friends

There are certain life moments I’ve visualized as being distinctly adult: having my own apartment, throwing dinner parties, and relaxing in front of the TV with a glass of wine. My younger self, having absorbed too much Food Network and too many lifestyle magazines, waited eagerly for a “grown-up life,” full of these moments that would make me a classy and “successful” adult. Think Jenna from “13 Going on 30,” wishing for those “fun and flirty 30s.” It wasn’t quite that extreme, but you get the idea—I looked forward to entertaining friends and successfully cooking multi-course meals.

While I’m still making that transition to adulthood—I may live in an off-campus apartment and pay rent, but I also love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and occasionally watch “The Magic School Bus” on Netflix—I’m at a point where I can cook with friends, have potlucks, or throw dinner parties. My apartment may not have many matching dishes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fulfill those dreams the cooking- and lifestyle-obsessed high school me had. I can’t pinpoint exactly why making multi-step meals with friends feels “adult” to me—perhaps it’s because I only ever made cookies or cupcakes with friends growing up, and there’s a certain amount of pride and achievement I associated with cooking meals for others.

A few weeks ago, two friends and I set out to make Rigatoni with White Bolognese, a moderately easy to make but impressively flavored dish. Senior spring seems the time to ease myself into more adventurous cooking and spend quality time with friends. To combine the two, I’ve decided to start cooking together, having potlucks and throwing dinner parties. It is pretty difficult to experiment with recipes on a student’s schedule and budget, but I want to make it a priority. I miss the days of helping my mom cook dinner at home and experimenting with new scone recipes on the weekends. Though off meal plan and cooking for myself, I haven’t strayed too far from basic meals learned from home and friends. This was a chance to get back in the kitchen for real, not as a high school baker or rushed college student who needs dinner, but as the foodie I would like to believe I am.

One of my friends concocted the plan, eager to create this pasta dish again after making it during winter break. With two kinds of meat that spend a good hour simmering in white wine, beef broth, and the liquid from rehydrated dried porcini mushrooms, this recipe became my new favorite pasta dish before we’d even finished making it. It is made like a Bolognese sauce with a dash of cream instead of a tomato sauce, and it is most definitely a comfort food. We stocked up on the key ingredients—ground beef and pork sausage meat, dry white wine, porcini mushrooms, and rigatoni—and invited a third friend over to help us cook.

Bolognese sauce originated in the city of Bologna in Northern Italy. A dish that is “alla Bolognese” is one that has a meat-based sauce, called a ragù. This was a food lesson for me; I have always assumed that Bolognese was the basic tomato and ground beef sauce I’ve often encountered at Italian restaurants and jars at the supermarket. It’s definitely more complicated than that when you go the traditional route, though, and I’ve now learned just how much work goes into creating the multi-layered deliciousness of the pasta dishes I love at restaurants. Though I eat pasta at least once a week, sauces are not my forte, unless you count adding tomato basil sauce from a jar to a pot of pasta. If I’m up to it, I’ll add some ground beef and sautéed veggies to spice it up. You can see, then, this dish was a big step up.

With diced carrots and onions from Market Shares, we started the base of the sauce, leaving out the celery that we hadn’t been particularly interested in buying. Once the meat was added to the pan and was browned, three rounds of liquid were added, each one simmering down before the next could be poured in. This simmering stage is what makes this dish—the meat and sauce are infused with the flavors of the white wine, beef stock, and mushrooms. This process took much longer than the recipe made it seem, so we passed the time catching up on life, soaking and dicing the porcini mushrooms, and roasting some kohlrabi with parmesan to snack on. It was the kind of quality time over meals that I miss now that I’m off meal plan. For the first few years of college, I looked forward to that time I had in the dining hall to chat and bond with friends over food. Getting back to that was soothing and delightful.

After all the simmering, it needed a splash of cream before we mixed it with the pasta and served it up in big bowls topped with grated parmesan. Its initial taste reminded me of beef stroganoff, a dish my mom and I had experimented with together in my high school days. The White Bolognese was less creamy but had that full-bodied flavor from the browned meat and onions. It was nice to be relaxing and cooking with company again; the last time I’d had a chance was over the summer. My roommates and I are often in the kitchen together, but it’s hard to get into the cooking experience when you know there are books and papers that await once you’re done. Cooking is always pleasant to me, but especially this time where I got to  spend quality time with two people I enjoyed while producing a giant pot of delicious food.

I’ve resolved that there’s a reason food, friends, and family are always at the top of the list of things that are most important to me. I didn’t spend that evening of cooking and socializing thinking about the work I wasn’t doing or the miles-long task list I had; I focused on the amazing smells of a reducing wine sauce, the laughter and smiles of my friends, and the happiness of packing leftovers in a Tupperware to enjoy again. Younger me would have been so excited and proud.