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Sometimes an Improvised Sauce Is the Best Sauce

When I pickup a knife, my husband is not nervous, not really. He keeps an eye out. He hovers. Finally, he can’t help himself: He reaches over and gently adjusts my guiding hand, making sure the fingers are curled properly and only the knuckles face the blade, so I won’t cut myself as I slice.

We are different creatures in the kitchen, which is more his domain than mine. His mother, an artist, encouraged — insisted on — creative pursuits, and he learned to cook as a kid, with Julia Child as his teacher, nestled inside the TV. My parents, meanwhile, who grew up in times of war and scarcity, placed their trust in foods engineered to never go bad. In our house the herbs came packed in jars, musty as pine needles, and I drank Tang and tossed strips of Spam into Kraft mac and cheese from the box. I had no complaints: I liked what I ate well enough and didn’t know what it would take to make it better.

With him I tried my first properly ripe tomato, brash and fat, juices running, and later my first true peach, not swamped in syrup in a can but whole and fuzzy to the touch, its swoony sweetness somehow liquid and solid at once. He was baffled that I had lived so long without.

He still sometimes wonders if I’m an alien in disguise, sent to Earth to observe human life. When we first lived together, we argued about buying flowers for the apartment. I saw them as a luxury, even though you could get a bouquet at the bodega for only $4. But to him, they were essential: a way to bring beauty to our lives. And so my life is more beautiful now.

I’ve learned to navigate the kitchen over the years, but maybe because I’m late to the game, my cooking has a slightly studious air. My husband’s a natural, free to wing it, while I go by the book. We are cooks as we are musicians. Each of us trained at the piano as children, but where I dutifully read the notes, he composes, the music pouring out like a language he was born to. I need a recipe, a shopping list, a mise en place; he glances in the larder and, voilà, dinner.

As often happens in marriage, when one person is spectacularly better at something, the other cedes the field.

The reward is surprise. One night, he’s planning to cook halibut when he realizes we’re out of fish sauce, fresh chiles and makrut lime leaves, all key ingredients in the sauce he usually whisks together to accompany a white, butter-fleshed, reliably flaky fish. He thinks, How can he recreate the balance of hot-sour-salty-sweet that makes Southeast Asian cooking so vivid?

He rummages in the pantry. For heat, there are crushed Calabrian chiles suspended in oil, smoky and sunny; for a mellow sourness, Moscatel vinegar the color of honey, fragrant with a hint of bittersweet; and for a funk akin to the otherworldly brine of fish sauce, fermented white pepper. Other notes come in: delicate marjoram, cousin to oregano but less forward, with its comforting contour of balsam, and Timur pepper from Nepal, fragrant and bright, calling to mind a just-peeled tangerine. (Like Sichuan pepper, it’s part of the citrus family and, despite its name, not botanically related to pepper at all.)

He serves the fish lashed with the improvised sauce, which is denser than a vinaigrette but still loose and the orange-red of a young sunset, with dark flecks of Timur pepper. It’s summer-light yet earthy, lending a generous, almost floral warmth. I don’t entirely understand what I’m eating, but I want more.

When I ask him to write it down, he can’t. He didn’t track the measurements. Later I find him testing out different versions, recalibrating. After all, not everyone has a pantry so expansively (some might say obsessively) stocked, and he wants to see if he can coax similar flavors out of more readily available ingredients: apple-cider vinegar paired with a little sugar to match the fruitiness of the Moscatel, Sichuan pepper given a citrus boost by extra orange juice and a shower of orange zest.

At last, he gives me a recipe, although he says it isn’t, quite. Just a sketch, he says. A starting point. An invitation to make it up as you go, to figure out what works together — what belongs.

Recipe: Fish With Citrus-Chile Sauce

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