Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cooking, it's a Zen Thing

There are a couple of questions that get asked regularly that I don't care for. One is "what are you reading?". Now I don't dislike the question per say, but folk invariably ask it while I am reading, which means I have to stop reading and talk to them. If I wanted to talk I wouldn't be hiding behind my book, duh.

The other is "can you write down the recipe for that?" The answer is usually "no because I don't use recipes." This comment is usually meet with a look of confusion, which is understandable, most people have their grandmothers recipe for something or another and they will follow it to the letter with no deviation every single time. If they have a recipe they got from the web or a magazine and if it says "use ONLY JoBobs real ketchup" well they will run out for a bottle of JoBob's. People are afraid to take a chance, and in doing so they miss out on opportunity.

Part of the problem is that people have a skewed view of what cooking is, cooking is not just the assembling of specific ingredients, in a specific order, at a specific temperature. Cooking should be about the food, not the words. Now I do use recipes, as a guideline to new ideas. Say I want to make pasta carbonara, something I have never made. I just looked up several recipes for that dish. Some had bacon, some had ham, one had pepperoni (sounded yucky) one had a combination of Italian sausage and prosciutto. Most all had 1/2 a pound of meat and 4 eggs. The amount of spices, Parmesan cheese and other ingredients varied. Directions were all similar.

If I were to make this dish I would go off those porportions and just cook it based on that, along with my personal preferences and what the dish tasted like as it progressed. That last step is the important one that many people fail to use. If I were to cook it, it would go something like this:

Start pasta cooking
Brown some bacon or prosciutto in a pan, about 3-4 slices ( I always use less bacon than something calls for)
Remove bacon drain pan of excess fat
saute some onion
beat together eggs and whole milk or 1/2 and 1/2
add minced garlic
add eggs and milk mixture, season with salt and pepper (easy on the salt since we are adding Parmesan cheese.)
add some fresh or frozen peas, heat until peas are bright green and warm through
Drain and add pasta and mix to coat noodles, add some Parmesan at this time.
add some fresh parsley
Plate, garnish with more Parm and Parsley.

You notice I didn't add amounts, go by taste and texture, most recipes called for cream which I hardly ever use. So I would use less of the milk or half and half since it is a bit thinner and just watch the consistency adding more as needed. I also added the cheese later than the most recipes call for it. This is based on my personal experiences adding cheeses to sauces and what I like to do. I would also taste it as I went along, seasoning in layers, in other words the onion would get a bit of salt and pepper, so would the eggs and milk as I added them. Tasting each to get it right.

I can't emphasize that one enough TASTE AS YOU GO. Recipe calls for 1/4 cup chopped onion? what if the onions are watery tasting, really pungent and strong? 1 tbl chili powder? what if it is old?, fresh?, an odd brand?, you like stuff really hot?, really mild? You won't know if you don't taste, waiting until the dish is done won't work. How many times have you or someone you knew said "next time I make this I will xxxxx"? If you taste as you go along you don't have to wait until next time, you can fix it this time and perhaps prevent a meal from being tossed out and the pizza place called up to bat.

The recent Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect example, I wasn't cooking this year. My sister had volunteered, I went over a bit early to give her a hand as needed. She is a decent cook and isn't afraid to try new things, her cranberry recipe, much like my own, has evolved over the years. She had nuts in it this year and it was fine. However when we sat down to eat, that was the first time she had tasted it, if something had been wrong she would not have known until her guests had already been served. By comparison, when we made the gravy, I tasted it and was of the opinion the salt was fine but it could use some pepper, she tasted it and agreed but if I had not done it first she would not have bothered. Would the gravy have been bad? No, but it would not have been as good as it was, solely because we tasted it and adjusted the seasonings.

I think most folk have lost the soul of cooking, in this age of prepackaged, instant, onepot in a box things that the marketing folk call food, we have lost sight of what food is, and how it should be treated. Smell your produce, taste food as you prepare it, if you think something would taste good in a recipe add it. Don't be afraid to try new things, more importantly cook new things.

Learn to be one with your food, taste, smell, touch as you cook. Learn substitutions for odd items. Lemongrass is a favorite ingredient of mine, very hard to get in my area and when I do it is usually past it's prime. Does that mean I can't make my favorite Thai Curry recipe? Naw, I use lemon zest instead, not quite the same but it works. Think outside the box (and don't buy the box). Pineapple upside down cake but pineapple is out of season? Try cranberries, blue berries or plums instead. Wander around the produce department and look for odd things. Buy them, then go and look up something to cook with them. If you do it in the opposite order you'll probably never buy the item, if you buy it first you will use it for something.

So don't throw your cook books out, but move them out of the kitchen. Use them as a reference, then get in there and cook. Paying attention to your food and listening to it will teach you more about cooking than all the books in the world.

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