I bought a stainless-steel kitchen prep table in 2016 because I once read that you could throw hot pots and pans directly on it. This tall, sturdy table has since become a center of gravity for me. I do everything on it, from reading the paper with my coffee in the morning to developing recipes for work during the day. At night, I clear it for dinner. It’s where I chop onions, whisk vinaigrettes and knead dough for fresh-baked milk bread on the weekend. I have only two stools, one for each side of the table, and I like it that way. It’s where my partner and I sit for our meals.
I could buy more stools, but over the years I’ve found that I prefer one-on-one dinners to larger gatherings or solo meals. It’s not that I don’t love a good dinner party. I’m at my most powerful the moment I pull a perfect roast chicken out of the oven, and little makes me happier than sending my friends home full. And when I’m alone, food can be a transcendent way to treat myself. A funky sliver of Taleggio cheese or a caramel-edged slab of black cod will latch onto my mind until I’ve eaten massive quantities of it or written it out of my system into a recipe.
But when I’m cooking for my boyfriend, the pleasures are different. I get out of my own head and go into caretaker mode, considering things beyond just flavor: comfort, nutrition, this other human’s well-being. Will he like it? Will this keep him full? There’s also that unparalleled quiet when it’s just the two of us sharing a meal, and the day starts to dim. Food is on the table, but it’s not an occasion: It’s just dinner. We can chat and catch up on gossip. This hum of the ordinary grounds me and reminds me that I’m alive. And when he has lapped up what I’ve cooked, leaving behind little more than crumbs on the plate? There’s no better feeling.
I tend to have the memory of a goldfish, which is why I like to take pictures of the dinners I cook for us before we dive into them. Later, as I flip through the photos on my phone, I experience those meals again as if they’re songs in a playlist of our relationship: The kimchi-and-mayo sandwiches I packed for our first date in the park, the kimchi juice dripping down his arms. The life-giving juk I made for us one morning, sprinkled with furikake, egg yolks and oven-blistered cherry tomatoes, juicy with promise. The giant green salad we shared for lunch in between work meetings, bejeweled with thinly sliced watermelon radishes. The pavlova we made one day after an entire afternoon in Brooklyn searching for rhubarb. The fire-bright shrimp stew that lit up our senses before a night of dancing through the street like children.
I remember the first time I made that shrimp stew: It was still burbling in its hot pot when I transferred it from the stove to the table. It’s a good table, but it’s also a good stew. A sort of cousin of bouillabaisse, cioppino and maeuntang, it feeds two comfortably, with a spicy, aromatic broth that’s tinged red with gochugaru, a Korean red-pepper powder. Bitter greens and sweet radishes provide vegetal heft as well as complexity to the broth, which you should definitely sop up with bread or rice. You can use jumbo shrimp or prawns; just be sure to get them with their shells on (and ideally heads on too), as they’re essential to flavoring this simple dish.
The heads are optional because I don’t know whom you’re cooking for. But I highly recommend using head-on crustaceans, if you can find them, and if your diner is someone with whom you are intimate. That’s because this is an intimate stew, the kind you’ll want to eat with someone you’re close with, as sucking the flavor out of the heads is the most pleasurable part of what is already a very pleasurable experience. You can take my boyfriend’s word for it. When he took a bite out of that first shrimp head, he leaned over the table and said, “This is what makes life worth living.”
Recipe: Shrimp Stew for Two