Monday, August 29, 2011

Culinary Arts

   Variety is the spice of Life. And after a week of fast food and leftovers, I was thrilled this weekend to have the time and reason to COOK. It helps to have friends to cook for. Good company I think is the best ingredient in any meal. Between discordant work schedules, and picky appetites, I rarely bother to pull out the pots and pans when it's just me and my husband who are eating. On a general basis, I don't cook. I eat. Somehow. You would think one would preclude the other, but no, not in our modern world of Chick-filla and microwaves. Food is instant. Food is fuel. If you're lucky it doesn't taste like crap, but it's something that we just don't have time to really think about these days.

   But oh, for the times that I may feast! To actually plan a meal! A real meal, with multiple food groups in it! Even perhaps more than one course! I feel I use different words, and entirely different parts of my brain when I cook. The whole experience is multi sensory. Let's start by looking:

   I love cook books. Specifically the big hardback ones with glossy pages full of beautiful photographs of glistening deserts and roasts and breads. I may be a bit of a snob this way. I grew up using my mothers cook books that were simple paper with a little country style border and just words and directions. Even though glossy or not, it all ends up sticky and covered in flour, but these plain ol' boring ones don't let you know what you're getting! How can I anticipate the deliciousness of pie if I don't know what it's supposed to look like when it's done? Moreover, what will I judge my own skills against? When your dish comes out brown and mushy instead of gold and crispy you know you did something wrong and you have a clear picture of what "gold and crispy" is. Pictures put you on the right path, by helping you decide what you want to cook, what you want to experience in the first place.

  The next step to a fulfilling cooking experience: Proper preparation. This is my biggest short coming, and always has been, but you really do make your life easier by reading the directions first. You know what ingredients and what tools you need. You also know how much time you need. This takes HOW LONG to cook?! Do I need to prepare the marinade in advance? You know to check your own cupboards to see what you need vs. what you have. You also can decide what may be substituted for something else. Must I go out and buy a Lemon zester? Or can I slice the peel very thinly? Can I use pears instead of figs? Can I use half and half instead of cream? Will soy milk be ok? Then you get to make your shopping list. To the local grocery store!

   I know most people hate grocery shopping, but I actually don't mind. Planning sometimes involves making a trip. Plus I think it's kinda cool to know where food comes from, what it looks like before it's real food. Also you always get better results when you use fresh ingredients. It turns cooking into a quest. Which for a special occasion, or a special person, makes the whole process, well, even more special. Nothing like having a reason to visit a spice store, or actually drive down to that shack by the creek for fresh caught sea food. Yay buying local!

   Now we get to see our food take shape! You get to use all sorts of words and motions that you really don't use doing anything else: chopping, mincing, dicing, paring, sifting,....tasting! Make a mess! In the name of culinary science! We are creating, but within the directed confines of the recipe, to which I will defer to some other chefs experience and wisdom. Things begin to boil, bake, waft, simmer, bubble. Smells fill your whole house and you know you are on the right track. Or it smells dreadful and you know you did something wrong. You are constantly being corrected and validated by your environment! Which is pretty cool!

  Ding! The timer! The moment of Truth! Did my creation match the picture? A little different? Still delicious? Yes! Success! Now for the final sense: Taste! The best part. You may now fill your stomach with something your brain and your hands worked to create, and if your lucky, it may fill the bellies of your friends and family as well. My family and I may disagree on several things about our respective life choices, but we can all agree spaghetti is delicious no matter which of us makes it. By eating something you prepare, you can be transported. By the fragrant spice of Indian tandoori chicken, by the savory comfort of french onion soup, the tender warmth of fresh challah, the nutty deliciousness of pad thai, or the heavenly guilty pleasure of fresh brownies! We bask in our senses, we are pleased with our fullness, and we bask in the memories attached to each taste and smell. A totally satisfactory creative experience.

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