"This woman," said Myron Orleans, pointing a tortilla chip at his wife, Valerie, shaking his head slowly from side to side. "This woman figured out real fast that the way to my heart is through my stomach."
Orleans aimed his chip at a bowl of guacamole--his own, homemade, too-spicy-for-the-kids guacamole--and continued.
"I go over to her house for one of our first dates, and she's listening to Aaron Copland, one of my favorite composers, another Bronx Jew like me, wonderful, and she saunters over to the stove and gives me this incredible spaghetti--the most wonderful spaghetti sauce you ever ate. Everything was perfect. I just sat back and enjoyed it and fell in love with her forever from that moment on."
Orleans gobbled his loaded chip. "What I didn't know," he said, chewing, "was that Valerie doesn't really cook."
What he didn't know obviously hasn't hurt him--or the romance that carried him swiftly into his second marriage and first shot at fatherhood.
Orleans, 45 ("as young a 45 as you can be!") lives in Anaheim Hills, teaches sociology at Cal State Fullerton, and cooks most of the dinners he and his wife share "on the evenings our schedules bring us together," he said, usually three or four nights a week. Those dinners often are interrupted by the demands of the Orleans' 4-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter, but that's OK with Dad.
"My joy is making the food and eating it," he said. "There's usually a lot of noise around, my daughter is throwing her food on the floor, it's hectic. I just try to tune out and enjoy it as much as possible."
The professor came to cooking late in life--long after he had left his home in the Bronx, where "mother stayed home and burned the food." It wasn't until his first marriage ended in the late '70s that Orleans took an interest in food preparation--as a bachelor's dating aid. Orleans explained:
"After (my first wife) and I separated and I started to date, I wanted to invite women over to my house to have a nice meal, but I didn't know how to cook very well. So my (first) wife, who is a wonderful woman, we still had very good feelings about each other, would come over, chop things up, set it all up for me, tell me what needed to be done, then leave before my date arrived.
"At first, the cooking was just as a means to get to know women better," he said. "After a while, I was inviting people over so I could have the opportunity to cook."
Not one to collect cookbooks or even measure ingredients, Orleans relies on his "strong sense of spices" and an eclectic search for "new ingredients and new angles."
"My basic pattern is to either go Asian, with the curries and those kinds of flavors, or what I like to call Mex-Italian, with the red sauce and chilies," he said. "I'm not trying to be culturally pure. I like to pick and choose and combine lots of things.
"Sometimes I semi-read or glance at recipes in the newspaper food sections," he said. "I'll read maybe three recipes and combine elements from them, or just read them and whatever I recall, I'll try it out. 'Oh, they put that ingredient in there? Next time I'll do that.'
"Sometimes if I see a woman in the supermarket who seems to know what she's doing, picking and choosing (produce) rather than just grabbing, I'll go up and say, 'What are you looking for?' How do you prepare this?'
"When I have a baby on my arm, they think I'm innocuous, so they answer the questions," Orleans said. "I've gotten some good ideas that way."
MYRON'S MEX-ITALIAN MELANGE
1 pound extra-lean ground beef
1 pound chorizo (Mexican sausage)
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 medium tomatoes, sliced
2 large white onions, sliced
1 small eggplant, peeled and sliced
2 small zucchini, sliced
1/2 green pepper, sliced
1/2 red pepper, sliced
4 chilies (2 whole and 2 chopped)
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
1 cup red wine
1/2 cup uncooked white rice
In Dutch oven, brown beef and chorizo in oil. Reduce heat to simmer and pat meat dry with paper towels. Add remaining ingredients except rice; turn heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When mixture begins to boil, add rice and stir thoroughly. Reduce to lowest possible heat and cover. Cook for 30-40 minutes, until rice is done.
Serve with tortillas and grated mozzarella cheese. Serves six.