Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bacon-wrapped Water Chestnuts... who knew?

I need to thank my wife.

Today at work, we had a catered banquet to recognize service milestones (5, 10, 25 years, etc.) for several people in our radio group. It's something that happens every year, traditionally at our annual staff Holiday Party. This year however, like many companies across the country, our Holiday Party was canceled due to budget constraints in the tough economy. I understand. While a night of dinner and drinks with co-workers is nice, it's better to know that we work for a company that values keeping personnel over keeping parties when it comes to budget time.

In that spirit of valuing employees (or employee-owners as we're called in this ESOP company), it was decided that those celebrating service milestones should still be recognized during an in-office event. So at 11am, the announcement was made over the intercom system in our building that food was available in our conference room. The table had been made-over, with formal silver platters of hors d'oeuvres, warming dishes filled with stuffed portobello mushrooms, and at the end of the table, a gentleman sauteeing and serving sliced beef tenderloin. It was a complete transformation. As one co-worker put it, "Who's getting married in the conference room?"

So in addition to the amazing beef and the fantastic stuffed potato skins, I picked up a few small items of unknown content that had been wrapped in bacon and skewered with a toothpick. Turns out they are my new all-time favorite hors d'oeuvres: bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, and bacon-wrapped olives. Crispy, crunchy, juicy, uber-flavorful morsels of salty, bite-sized heaven. And as I was going back for seconds, I realized that ten years ago, I never would have tried them.

I used to be a picky eater. Some might say that I still am. It used to be that if a meal wasn't clearly defined as to what it was, what was in it, and if I knew that I liked it - I'd turn my nose up at it. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Chef Boyardee.

But having been with my wife for the past eight and a half years has definitely broadened my horizions. Knowing even before our first date that she was a vegetarian forced me to work outside my comfort zone. No easy steaks or burgers on the grill, no meatballs or ground beef in the spaghetti sauce, no hot dogs or Chicken Helper. I can still eat this stuff, but when I'm cooking for both of us I need to think outside the butcher's department.

The first time I cooked a meal for Sarah at my old apartment in Champaign, Illinois, during the summer of 2000, I found myself sauteeing portobello mushrooms for a pasta sauce. I don't know that I'd ever seen a portobello mushroom, let alone eaten or cooked one before. It was grand experimentation, tossing in whatever herbs and spices seemed to make sense from my meager spice rack. It worked well enough - she's still with me in 2009 anyway. And I discovered that my old repulsion toward mushrooms may have been misplaced.

Over the next couple years, more foods I never would have touched before started creeping into my diet. Broccoli. Pesto sauce on pasta. Hummus and pita chips. Indian food. Mediterranean tapas. I found myself watching Food Network with Sarah. Then No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain on Travel Channel. Then more recently Top Chef on Bravo, my mouth watering over dishes I've never had, prepared in ways I'd never imagined, with ingredients I've sometimes never heard of. And I want more.

So a thank you to my wife. Without whom, I'd probably still be passing over the bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, and maybe at best picking apart the bacon from the olive and brushing them off to eat separately.

Of course I can still always go for some mac & cheese.

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