Jerry Wright might have been the only fifth-grader in Las Cruces, N. M., who routinely cooked dinner for his family of eight. But it wasn't epicurism that brought the pint-sized chef to the kitchen.
"With so many kids in our family, we all had chores to do," Wright recalled with a sly grin. "My mom said, 'Whoever cooks doesn't have to wash dishes.' I figured that one out real quick."
Thus the pragmatic beginnings of a future gourmet.
A registered nurse specializing in the care of AIDS patients, Wright, 43, has come a long way since he dished up enchilada casseroles, chili and burgers for his parents and siblings. These days, dinners in the art-filled Laguna Beach home that Wright shares with his companion of 15 years most often consist of salad, pasta and small portions of meat or chicken redolent of fresh herbs.
Born in Crowley, La., and reared in New Mexico, Wright mastered traditional Cajun and Mexican cuisine long before his four-year hitch with the Navy--"a real turning point in my life as far as food and cooking (are concerned)," he said.
Stationed in Spain, and traveling Europe from Turkey to Norway while on leave, Wright delighted in his introduction to unusual combinations of food.
"I remember I was especially impressed with salade nicoise, " he said. "The first time I ordered it, I looked down and saw all these wonderful things in there--tuna, anchovies, cooked vegetables, green beans. The salads I'd always had were lettuce and tomatoes, period. I thought, my gosh, I can do this. I can throw all this stuff in a salad and experiment. I couldn't wait to get home to share all these new recipes with my family."
After 20 years of experimenting, Wright rarely follows recipes or measures ingredients anymore, preferring a more innovative, improvisational cooking style.
"And of course I've had a few disasters," he said, as he worked at the counter in his sunny kitchen, preparing a pork loin recipe he dreamed up several years ago. "Once I made a cream of avocado soup that tasted like cream of lawn," Wright said with a laugh. "A brilliant idea--it just didn't work."
The following is one of Wright's brilliant--and ultra-simple--ideas that "works."
PORK TENDERLOIN A LA MAISON WRIGHT
5 cloves garlic
6 sprigs fresh thyme
30 dried juniper berries
1 tablespoon coarse ground black pepper
2 pounds pork tenderloin
1/4 cup red table wine
Mash garlic and thyme with mortar and pestle. Add juniper berries and pepper and mash until mixture forms a coarse paste.
Place pork in shallow dish. Apply paste to both sides of pork, pressing into the meat. Pour wine into dish around pork (do not pour directly on pork).
Cover loosely with wax paper and cook in microwave on high for approximately 15 minutes. If your microwave has a meat probe, cook by temperature by programming microwave for 140 degrees. (To cook in conventional oven, cover dish and bake at 325 for half an hour.)
Suggested side dishes: corn souffle and baked apples.