In Our Kitchen: 20-somethings expand their repertoire, and so can you

A young couple who love to eat are learning to cook and expanding their repertoire in the kitchen. What they can do, you can, too.

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The wok is hot. Chopped snow peas, green onions, and bell peppers are waiting to go. Oil screams as it hits the wok and catches fire. Smoke sets off the alarm.

My boyfriend is trying to kill me.

This isn't the first time.

An attempt at blackened salmon sent up a cloud of spicy smoke that chased me out of the kitchen in a coughing fit. For a whiskey cocktail, he smoked ice, which (1) totally worked (2) made the apartment smell like a dive bar, then (3), burned a hole right through the bottom of a pot. Another night there was a pork shoulder that simmered until midnight. The expectations were high, but so was the heat. We — ahem, Danny — used the wrong peppers. I suffered through a few unbearably spicy bites before giving up.

Well, I'm still here. Despite those few dramatic dinners, our little kitchen more often than not sees some stellar meals. Crispy tofu in a rich, dark soy sauce infused with garlic and ginger. Homemade tortillas and pickled red onions for tacos with tender carnitas. Savory eggplant. Fried avocado. Bourbon banana bread.

We started dating shortly after making pizzas together, but a lot more cooking came after he encouraged this avid food blog reader to start her own. A Little Saffron Would Make This! was created in January. The name comes from a line in Ratatouille, a movie that charmed me and reminded us that anyone can cook. I write and take pictures for the blog, and we mostly cook together. This twice-monthly column, which we're calling In Our Kitchen, will work the same way.

We are not trained cooks. We are people who love to eat and love cooking at home. I'm a freelance writer, and Danny — his byline is Danny Valentine — is an education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. What you'll read in the column is something you can make in your home.

Our inspiration for breakfast, lunch, and dinner comes from magazines, cookbooks, food blogs and restaurants. This column will feature an eclectic selection of food that is simple, fresh, and at times unconventional. Think pulled pork stacked in between pancakes. Some recipes will be quicker than others. We see cooking as an enjoyable, everyday activity focused on the pleasure of good food. Sometimes we pop open a bottle of champagne on a Tuesday.

We cook in a small apartment kitchen in north Tampa. We are two 20-somethings cooking on a retro-looking stove with a manual timer that may be older than us (he's 25; I am 24). I bought a rice cooker for $12 during my freshman year in college, and it is still with me six years later. We are gradually collecting the basics, including a cast iron skillet, a good set of knives and a Dutch oven. Danny is always excited about adding more equipment, and I am too, though I try to curb that enthusiasm before we fill up space we don't have.

Near the kitchen is a bookcase dedicated to a growing number of cookbooks, and we recently added a tall one to hold Danny's birthday gift to me, a collection of more than 100 Gourmet magazines. The oldest one is dated 1958. We plan trips around meals, and most of our gifts to each other involve food. I took him to Bern's Steak House. He took me to dinner at a vineyard in Oregon. This works out for the both of us. That cocktail shaker for Christmas wasn't just for him, of course. And when he got a KitchenAid stand mixer, it was in my favorite color.

I'm a former vegan who began eating meat again around the time Danny started coming with me to visit my hometown, Miami. Food is how the women in my Nicaraguan family show their love, and every meal tends to include meat.

My godmother will serve you two plates — one of her vaca frita and another of her carne con papa. My grandmother will win you over with her minty arroz aguado, better than any risotto I've ever tried. For guests, my mom will go to one place for the best tortillas, another for the best chimichurri sauce, and yet another for the best maduros.

As a cook, my mom sticks mostly to a few typical Nicaraguan dishes and never consults a recipe or stops to measure anything. As a teenager, she once made the mistake of washing rice with soap and water, but as far back as I can remember the kitchen was her domain. She makes gallopinto with tender and flavorful rice and beans, and an arroz con pollo that is pretty much the only thing my cousin eats when visiting. Sometimes we ate fish my father caught off his boat, and he tends to grill the churrasco steak.

Danny grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, a Midwestern college town. His mother took care of most meals. Popular dinners included frozen ravioli, meat loaf, and a dish his mom called hamburger pie. Food is fuel for her, and she scrambles her morning eggs in a few spritzes of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Danny's father uses real butter while showing off the proper technique for flipping an omelet. He bottled his own beer way before craft beer was popular. He tends a garden and fills an extra freezer with pesto every year, adding to a collection of several vintages; 2007 was a good year.

Our food lives were wildly different growing up, and now we're figuring out where they go together. Knowing how to cook for yourself is important and fun. We'll be here on the first and third Wednesdays of the month with food that inspired us and hopefully will lure you to your kitchen.

Ileana Morales is a freelance writer with bylines for the Associated Press, the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times. She cooks in a small apartment kitchen in Tampa with boyfriend Danny Valentine, an education reporter in the Tampa Bay Times' Hernando bureau. For more of their kitchen adventures, visit Ileana's food blog, alittlesaffron.com.

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