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Together even in the kitchen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The scent of sauteing onions wafts from the home of Sunny and Laurie Glassner. Laurie prepares a salad of toasted almonds, Israeli feta cheese and ripe cherry tomatoes while Sunny puts the finishing touches on sea bass served on a bed of spinach, mushrooms, onions, pears and mango.

There is no table of guests to receive the gourmet feast; it's a blustery midwinter Monday night, an average dinnertime in a home belonging to a couple who cooks together.

While some couples may draw territorial lines around the kitchen based on gender or skill, others enjoy a peaceful coexistence in the culinary realm. They say creating a meal together requires many of the same skills as holding together a relationship: communication, compromise and a sweet reward at the end.

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, we talked with three couples who have found love, spice and adventure in the kitchen.

The Glassners, co-owners of Louis Mazor Inc., which includes Pacific Collection Asian Antiques, began cooking together soon after they married. They negotiate around their small kitchen in Homeland with the practiced ease that comes from cooking together more than 30 years.

"Compared to virtually every other woman I knew, very few knew how to cook," says Sunny. "Laurie is artistic and she appreciates food almost like another art form."

Laurie learned her skills from her mother, who became a gourmand late in life, while Sunny picked up the basics in the Navy. As a young married couple, they began experimenting with flavors, herbs in particular. Sunny recalls that, "She'd make scrambled eggs with so many herbs, I finally said, 'Next time, no thyme!'"

Over the years, the Glassners honed their skills and emerged with individual expertise. "Cooking is Sunny's favorite thing in the world," says Laurie. "I do appetizers, salads and desserts; Sunny does the main course. That's how we do it. It's a question of what we like to do."

According to Laurie, dessert appeals to her creative sensibility and she enjoys the presentation as well as the process, even though she is diabetic. Plus, the Glassners believe that a dessert is an essential end to a good meal. "You don't think I'm going to let people just ooh and ahh over his main course," says Laurie with a smile.

When the Glassners cook at home for themselves, they tend to prepare simple fish and chicken dishes, however, they get more elaborate with guests. Sunny enjoys cooking unusual meats such as venison and duck.

"When Laurie and I cook, we totally transpose," says Sunny. "In every other part of my life, I'm totally disciplined and Laurie is very loose and artistic. We look at things very differently. When it comes to cooking, Laurie has to be strict with respect to the recipe whereas I can taste my way through."

Their status as entertainers is renowned and their skills in the kitchen were recently auctioned off at a fund-raiser where they were commissioned to make a four-course meal complete with appetizers.

Sunny describes one of his most elaborate meals, borrowed from a cookbook of the Inn at Little Washington. The meal featured game hens served with grilled portobello mushrooms topped with garlic sweet potato, surrounded by roasted garlic, shallots and vegetables. It was topped with a red wine reduction sauce of his own creation and seared foie gras, a last-minute addition that he nearly forgot until Laurie pointed it out.

"We had $300 worth of foie gras in the refrigerator and I had to say, 'Aren't you forgetting something?'" she recalls. "Sometimes Sunny gets really fancy and the fancier he gets, the more he forgets." The plates weighed nearly 5 pounds each when they made it to the table, she jokes.

The Glassners' kitchen is comfortable, but hardly a set from the Food Network; nevertheless, they've learned how to cook together through years of practice. They know when to share the kitchen and when to get out of each other's way.

"If I can make something ahead of time I will, or I'll start in the morning and find out when he needs the kitchen," says Laurie.

"I think I know how he does things," says Laurie. "He's a perfectionist and he needs time ... but I've never seen anyone who loves something like he loves cooking."

Opposites attract

Diane Bukatman and Bert Rankin make an unlikely pair in the kitchen. She is a professionally trained chef and the owner of For the Love of Food, a boutique catering company in Reisterstown that also offers cooking courses. Rankin was a meat-and-potatoes guy who says salt and pepper were the only spices in his house when he was a child. They met at a cooking class for singles where Rankin was a student and Bukatman was teaching. He took her course on chocolate truffles and seven years later they are still cooking.

"I always had an affinity toward good food, but I never had the skills or the training," says Rankin, who is in corporate development at Maryland Public Television.

Bukatman changed all of that.

"When we first met, I taught him the right way to chop onions and he got a real kick out of that, so he does a lot of the prep work," says Bukatman.

While Rankin enjoys learning the science behind cooking, Bukatman appreciates the efforts of her prep chef. "It is wonderful to have all the drudge work done -- it's like being on TV. It makes you feel loved to know someone does that for you."

"There's nothing more intimidating than being in the kitchen with a professional chef when you are not; that's why I'm more prep-oriented," says Rankin. "That being said, I make a mean breakfast and I get A-pluses on my omelets."

The couple have an exquisite kitchen in their Reisterstown home, which they share with their three Chinese crested powder puff dogs, Luna, Bella and Merlin.

When they cook for themselves, they enjoy simple dishes, although Rankin notes that Bukatman can even transform ordinary peanut butter and jelly into a gourmet experience. But when they entertain friends, the experimentation begins. Bukatman loves to cook with spontaneity and spice, and she and Rankin will pull out all their cookbooks to find exotic recipes.

"I'm really bad because I will experiment on friends," says Bukatman. "People ask me how I know it's going to work and it just never occurs to me that it won't work. You have an instinct when you read a recipe as to what will work."

The couple found a rhythm through trial and error and now the process is relatively smooth. Bukatman is still the teacher; Rankin is her official taste tester. On catering jobs, the two work together well.

"I think you need to figure out what each other's strengths are," says Bukatman. "If you know that something is your strength, do what is your strength. If the other person likes prep, don't take that on yourself because then you could make the whole thing an unpleasant experience. You may find that out while you're cooking or you may want to sit down and say, 'Hey let's cook a meal -- what do you like to do?'"

Each year on Valentine's Day, Rankin cooks dinner for Bukatman. "If you choose the right menu, it can be sensuous in a way," says Rankin. "Especially if the relationship is flat, it can be a great way to get out of a rut."

Bukatman's favorite dishes for romance are gooey and rich, like fondue, or decadent, like strawberries dipped in aged balsamic vinegar.

After seven years with Bukatman, Rankin says he's spoiled for good food. The only drawback to being one half of a gourmet couple is that sometimes Bukatman's food snobbery wins out -- Rankin still can't get her to make him an old-fashioned green-bean casserole with French's fried onions.

Exotic tastes

As far back as he can remember, Jake Slagle has been intrigued by delicacies. Although he grew up in a mainstream culinary environment, he'd save his money to buy unusual food items.

"My meager child's savings went into getting fried grasshoppers in a can at a delicatessen in Pikesville," says Slagle, a residential real estate agent who also had his own line of canned soups. "I was convinced that I loved them and I made quite a spectacle of myself when I brought them to school."

So when he met Nina Tou through mutual, food-loving friends 13 years ago, it was a perfect match. "We were both interested in cooking and a little bit adventurous," says Slagle.

Like Slagle, Tou grew up in a family where fruit, vegetables and herbs came from the garden and where their parents hunted and fished, bringing interesting game to the table. "My mom used to let me go in the kitchen and make a big mess," Tou says of her early culinary training.

Tou, a graphic designer, resides with Slagle in the Mayfield neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore where they share a small kitchen that is packed with exotic spices and ingredients.

The walls of Slagle's office overflow with cookbooks from around the world, and he's developed a computerized database of more than 800 recipes from friends, the Internet, books and television. Although they enjoy eating out, they cook for each other several nights a week, taking the time to create a meal even if it means sitting down to eat at 9.

Tou and Slagle enjoy going to the city's farmers' markets and can often be found searching for good, inexpensive produce and unique ingredients in Asian groceries. Cooking "brings together a lot of ways that we can share things together," Tou says.

The assignment of tasks in the kitchen varies by meal with husband and wife sharing the chef's hat. "We might be making dishes side by side, or I might prep for him," says Tou. Slagle adds that sometimes, "We split the prep jobs up however it needs to be done." However, it is Tou's responsibility to quell the sweet tooth of their guests, and her specialty is fruit tarts.

Sometimes the couple admit that their small kitchen can be frustrating, but they don't let that limit their creativity. They favor cuisine from Myanmar, Thailand, India, Japan and the Caribbean.

"The last time we had people for dinner," Tou recalls, "we had pork ragu with coconut," an Indonesian fusion dish. "At Christmas we had an Italian salad, an African stew, a prime rib with a horseradish crust, caviar pie and mashed potatoes."

They've won over many guests with their lima-bean casserole, and their Burmese lamb chops -- made with turmeric, cumin, paprika, honey and soy sauce -- which are a safe standby for any party or simple dinner.

"Someone might say, 'That sounds weird, I'm not going to try it,' " Tou says, "whereas we'll be like, 'That sounds really wild, we'll try it.' "

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