Monday, April 11, 2011

Me, on Cooking

I love food, but my love affair goes far beyond the simple act of scraping it onto a fork and putting it into my mouth. I love the process that goes into preparing any ingredient I can find in the refrigerator that I think sounds good: peeling the outer layers off the garlic and onions, heating the olive oil and feeling the tickle in my nose as the black pepper starts to cook, watching the garlic chunks turn crunchy and brown, wilting the lettuce, plumping the raisins, stirring in the coconut milk until it encompasses the rest of the contents of the pan. And yes, all of those ingredients usually go into one catch-all dish.

There’s a reason people gather in kitchens at parties. You can rarely find a better smell in a house than what’s coming out of the kitchen; unless it’s prepared ahead of time, you can rarely talk to the cook unless you’re perched on a stool near him or her. If I’m the cook, I’m probably going to give you a knife and a cutting board and ask you to chop something. Regardless of what your task is in the kitchen, there’s a reason to be there: there’s sustenance, both in the food you’re making and the in conversation that surrounds it; there are ideas about how to change it, perfect it, or tailor it, and after all the time you’ve spent surrounded by it, you get to pick it up off a plate, let its flavors meld in your mouth, and taste the time that went into it. If there’s anything not to like about that, I’m not sure what it is.

I consider myself a concoctionist. No, it is not a real word, and no, I’m probably not the one that made it up. I can cook with a recipe, but most of the time I don’t want to because the recipe leaves out the peppers that I couldn’t resist buying at the store because they were a perfect sunny yellow; it doesn’t make room for the leftover chili in the fridge that I’ve already eaten for four nights in a row. The recipe doesn’t tell me to throw in a spice that sounds like it might make or break the whole thing; a recipe didn’t lead me to create sweet potato hash browns with nutmeg, ginger, garlic and red chili flakes or chipotle butternut squash soup.

Lately I’ve been reading culinary fiction and other books on food, and it has made me mindful of what I pour into my pot. I’ve been sick lately and my soups reflect it: they’re hearty, chock full of vitamins, rich and deep in taste and color with a little bit of spice because it’s sometimes all I can detect with a stuffy nose. I’m stressed so I’m making pastas with pesto – rice pasta since wheat and I don’t always get along – because there’s nothing more comforting to me than a warm nutty basil sauce slathered over carbs. I have too much food in my cupboard and not enough time to eat it, so I’m chucking extra ingredients in wherever possible to use them up before they go bad: asparagus in soups, peanut flour in stews, Mexican herbal remedies thrown in for good luck and good juju. I’m hungry for rest and peace, and any good therapist would be able to see it in my food.

As mundane as following a recipe could sound to a concoctionist, any hesitancy I have in the matter is wiped away by getting to share my experience with others. I’m deep into my next recipe book, another compilation of recipes and wine pairings for another region, and I am trying recipes from my contributors at breakneck pace. It’s one of the only times I will follow a recipe, and it’s because I want to be sure the recipe works the way it’s supposed to. Any gathering is an excuse to make something with someone. If I made all the recipes myself it would simply mean that they worked for me, by including my friends I get perspective and discussion about the dishes, not to mention someone to enjoy them with.

I recently met a woman who told me she wished there was a food pill she could take instead of eating; that food was just something she had to eat to survive. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “I really don’t understand people like you.” In hindsight, it might have been a little rude. Then again, it might have been rude for her to tell someone like me that food should be contained in a pill.

Love and deep cooking kisses