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Friday, March 11, 2005

Fish DO Fry in the Kitchen, Beans DO Burn On The Grill-a

My cooking skills are getting better.

This is considering that they weren't much to begin with. Even now I can manage to whip up some frightful creations. My knack for putting together disparate foods to create something remotely (as remote as the interior of Borneo) edible can be traced to my early childhood. At that time, my eating habits occasionally ranged from dirt, to charcoal, and whatever else was under the kitchen sink. The bright side is that being a former charcoal eater has allowed me to appreciate the finer tastes of such nationally renowned chains as Red Lobster, the Olive Garden, and Applebees. I feel for those who grew up without this dining experience as they sit in the OG trying to understand what it is that they're eating.

Later, after I joined the latch-key youth movement of the late 70s/early 80s, I would come home and raid the fridge and upper kitchen cabinets for anything, anything, that would cease my hunger pangs. Once, it was a whole jar of tartar sauce, which made me so sick that I didn't touch the stuff until 20 years later. Another time was when, in sheer desperation, I took uncooked spaghetti, dipped it in Crisco, and ate it very, very al dente. To this day I will never forget the taste and the crunch of uncooked pasta. Hum, I also seem to have some loose memory of uncooked pasta and Elmers glue, but perhaps it's better if that remains un-recovered.

A seminal, evolutionary jump in my cooking skills can be placed all on one event and one dish: stuffed baked tomatoes (I think stuffed with ground beef, onions, and spices). I was lucky that when I was around 11 years old we had a big garden in our back yard. In it, we grew corn, yellow squash, watermelons, cantaloupe, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Around the same time, I sort of just discovered my Mom's small cookbook collection that featured a Time Life series that dedicated each edition to a different food group. In the vegetable edition, I found a recipe for stuffed tomatoes, which we just happened to be harvesting.

Let me just say this about tomatoes. There is nothing on Earth that resembles the smell of a ripe tomato on the vine. The smell it imparts on your hands and clothes after picking them is earthen. The taste of biting into one in the late afternoon, after it has been in the sun all day, and is still slightly warm, is sensual. Bruce has the same memory, only it's of peaches. Because of these memories, we both have reservations about buying peaches and tomatoes in the supermarket.

Anyway, the stuffed tomatoes I cooked for my parents that night represents my initiation into the world of cooking. Looking back, I realize that I had taken a big leap forward. The next step wouldn’t be until much later, long after the countless fast food jobs, the pizza and subs gig, and the cookie catering segway. It's really been in the last few years that my skills as a home cook have gotten to the point were I don't always need recipes. Not that I don't use them often, but some of the skills and techniques have been absorbed. Granted, I still have a long way to go, but I'm gaining the confidence to achieve that awesome ability to cook on the spot.

Cooking on the spot has long been a goal of mine. To me, it says that you have some knowledge; that if you were stranded on an island with a truck driver, a stockbroker, and an ex-marine you could deal with taro root and seaweed. What I've figured out so far is that the hardest part of learning how to cook is unlearning how to cook. It's unlearning how to taste. It's unlearning how to shop. And I readily admit, that for me at this point, it's a journey, not a destination. And if all of this stuff sounds like New Age crap, well, it could be. But in my case, it's not.

I think part of the popularity of the blog, 101 Cookbooks, comes from the fact that it speaks to the vast majority of us who truly value a good cookbook and who didn't grow up with parents who were great, or even functional, cooks. I know that I'm not alone when I, we, asked our parents how to cook certain things, they didn't know. Or that the meals they cooked for us, even when they were "semi-homemade", were an assemblage of packages. Whatever vegetables we had were boiled to death and then covered with a packaged sauce to add back flavor. Even when my Mom was cooking using packages and canned vegetables, it was much better than after the microwave crash-landed in our kitchen. After that, my memories of good food ceased to exist, like my mouth had been hit by a truck and gone into a coma. It's no wonder that I had no problems converting to vegetarianism at 19; what was there to lose?

Last night, we had pork chops and pureed parsnips. This is a meal I wish I grew up eating, even if it was made occasionally. All in all, it took about 45 minutes to cook. I had no recipe, only a little knowledge. I had no long list of ingredients to buy. True, I did immediately go to a cookbook to look up bone-in pork chops, but I couldn't find anything. So I used what I had learned from Harold McGee and Cooks Illustrated. I knew that pork chops on the bone tastes better than off and to fry them on medium so that the outside doesn't constrict. I learned that when frying meat, turn it often so that it cooks faster and more evenly. First, though, I cut my peeled parsnips into chunks and threw them in a pot of boiling water. When they were soft, I threw them in the food processor using a slotted spoon, along with some melted butter, olive oil, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. I pulsed it until thick, then added a little water from the pot to give it the consistency I wanted. Next I threw on a little bit of chopped parsley and closed the top of the food processor.

At this point I had to rest because my arm was tired from all of the throwing.

Then I proceeded to cook the chops. First, I rinsed and dried both sides. These chops had a good ratio of fat to meat. I lightly salted and peppered both sides. When the skillet was hot (on medium), I added about a tablespoon of vegetable oil, swirled it around and placed the pork chops in. After turning a few times, I stuck an instant-read thermometer inside of each chop. It was 145 degrees. I knew that once you take pork (or any meat) off heat, you have to let it rest so that the juices will be reabsorbed. While they are reabsorbing the juices, the temperature in the chops keeps rising, bringing them finally to a safe temperature. While they were out of the pan, I deglazed it using some dry sherry, then a little water and a little bit of cream, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to release the browned bits (aka "the love"). When that had reduced a bit, I added a little lemon juice (yes, pre-squeezed, but unadulterated), took it off the heat, and finished it by stiring in a tablespoon of cultured butter. This made a creamy, slightly lemony sauce, light in color. When plating, I added the pork chops to the plate. The juices that had accumulated on the cutting board, I quickly incorporated into the sauce, which I then poured over the chops. I then blended the parsley into the parsnips and placed them around the chops. The sweetness of the parsnips (well, they had sat in the fridge a little too long) went great with the chops and the sauce. I probably could've done some things a little differently (used fresher parsnips), but the end result was pretty good. Everything was hot, it was easy, and it took less than an hour.

There are people who say that cooking is an art form. While others say it is a science. When people speak this way, it scares the people who could benefit the most from learning how to cook. It makes the love of good food seem snobbish, bourgeois, and intellectual. Nonetheless, those who say that cooking is an art and a science are right. Cooking benefits from some creative thinking, but without knowledge and forethought, creativity is likely to land you at about the same place I went the other night with a fried bread, linguica, chicken, avocado mush monstrosity. Creatively thinking about your food is hearing and seeing combinations and tasting them by memory before you prepare them. Cooking is a science based on physics, but that doesn't require you to make pea soup foam for dinner, nor is there the need for fancy equipment and a rocket science PhD to cook well. Even those who say that "love" makes a good meal only have it half right, since I've put a lot of hate into my cheesecakes and they've always seemed to come out ok. I know that if I can go from eating dirt, raw Crisco spaghetti, and charcoal to eating simply prepared, tasty, wholesome foods without packages, anyone can.

It just takes time.



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