Friday, May 1, 2015

That Comfort in the Kitchen

Last Saturday I was in my kitchen, preparing lunch: beet wraps from this cookbook. (A version of the recipe using European measurement standards may be found here; translating it should not be difficult for American cooks and is worthwhile, if you don't want to buy the book. Which is a good and useful book, if, oh, just a little pretentious. Now, back to our story.) I've made the recipe a number of times before. It is not a small amount of trouble, because it has so many elements that must each be prepared individually - cook the quinoa, toast the walnuts, zest the orange, blitz the beets with the goat cheese (measuring all the while), grate the apple, slice the avocado. The resulting flavor combination is so unique, though, that I enjoy making it when I can manage to get all the ingredients together.

The prior week, I'd made a strange chilled borscht from this book, and I bought and boiled too many beets for the recipe. So I had some leftover cooked beets. I also had a whole package of unused herbed goat cheese from yet another recipe; I'd bought the right amount of bell peppers to roast, but twice as much goat cheese as I needed. This is how my kitchen often operates: I get the amounts wrong when I'm shopping, or I find when I'm on the point of making the dish that I should halve the recipe or we'll be eating weird borscht for weeks. This M.O. means that the following week I need to search my cookbooks or the internet for recipes that will use up last week's excesses. Never a dull evening.

I cannot read the caption on this and I badly want to

So I had leftover beets and leftover goat cheese, but they were in different proportions than the recipe called for. I also had herbed goat cheese instead of plain. Also also, I didn't have any walnuts, nor any raisins, so I was using pecans and just going without raisins. My common practice for cooking quinoa is to use half vegetable broth (or chicken broth, whatever's on hand) and half water to cook it in, because it makes the quinoa more flavorful. When the recommended cooking time is over, I turn off the heat, drape a doubled dishtowel over the pot, and put a lid on top. I let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes or until I need to serve. This is a trick I learned from a rice pilaf recipe years ago, and it keeps the quinoa from being either soggy or undercooked. The beet wrap recipe calls for cooking the quinoa in plain water with no after-steaming.

I was considering all these changes with amusement as I was grating the apple (half an apple, I've found, is plenty), and a lightbulb went on over my head so brightly that Matt noticed, from the living room, where he was occupied with something else. I stood perfectly still and let the light penetrate every brain cell it could, and then I noticed Matt noticing me.

"You okay, there?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. "I just figured something out."

"I can see that," he said.

I more or less taught myself to cook after Matt and I moved in together in 2006. It took two or three years of daily cooking before I felt confident in the kitchen, and even longer before I felt comfortable. I inflicted a lot of bad food on us during those years. Now I think of myself as a pretty serious cook. I don't make risotto especially well, but I know how to. I can caramelize onions, and make hollandaise, and I grind up my own garam masala. I made madeleines a couple of weeks ago.

Let's just say Matt took a significant risk back in 2006

All those meals and desserts and hashes and custards to my name, all that forgetting the salt and burning the garlic, has taught me discernment about what matters in a recipe and what doesn't. Baking recipes should be followed to the letter, even if they seem weird. But if a recipe calls for twice as much fat as flour when making a roux, I know it'll end up too oily. I can generally tell when the aromatics are off-balance in a soup - too many vegetables or too few herbs. Anyone who says to add fresh parsley to a casserole before baking it, instead of just before serving, is probably mistaken. And I know my own weaknesses: I know I stir quickbreads too much and I rush sauteeing.

So I knew, on Saturday, that if the proportion of beets to goat cheese was off, it didn't really matter, because the recipe could handle the extra earthiness. I knew that the herbs in the goat cheese wouldn't impact the final product much because the other flavors are so bright and strong. I knew that the best substitute for walnuts in this case was pecans, not hazelnuts or cashews, because of the role the walnuts were meant to play. I knew not to skip the annoying step of toasting the pecans. I knew how to cook the quinoa for maximum flavor. I knew all of these things not just because I'd made this particular recipe half a dozen times, but because I've got that discernment, that knowledge attained from years of cooking harder and harder dishes under a variety of stress levels.

I knew the flexibility of this recipe, where it could stretch and accommodate and where it couldn't. I knew when to go beyond what was written and when to follow the instructions.

This is what my professor meant. This is what she was talking about.

The tight control she referred to is me following the recipe with precision. Here, read this story, so that I may demonstrate how to execute a story. See how witty I am; see how the thing I set up here pays off there; see how the characters are three-dimensional and the metaphors are fresh and the verbs are active and interesting. There are themes and sharp dialogue. There is no draggy exposition nor unnecessary adverbs. Everything is perfectly in place. But something is still missing.

No, not bicarbonate, but good guess

What I have not attained yet is the discernment to know - by heart, by muscle memory, not by what I read in a book or learn from feedback - when and where to stretch the recipe, when and how to make substitutions. Having that knowledge, that comfort in the kitchen, is what she wants for me. That's the point when you can eyeball whether a pile of herbs is one tablespoon or two, when you can read a recipe and be certain how much salt you should add. I don't know the technical way to translate these skills into writing terms, but I hope my point is coming across anyway. There's freedom in that comfort, and the lack of it in a writer is palpable, I suspect, to an experienced creative writing professor.

It's not confidence that "Tunnelvision" had and my workshop story was missing. It's comfort.


This was a great lightbulb to have, but the action items from it are hella depressing. I only got to the happy way-station of feeling comfortable with a stove and a fridge full of mismatched ingredients by fucking up a lot, and by continuing to cook and learn long after I felt like I'd cooked and learned plenty enough, thank you. Truly, it wasn't until I cooked as a reflex rather than as a pleasure that I learned real comfort.

I'm never finished when I think I'm finished. That's one that finally sank in after a thousand pans of simultaneously over- and under-cooked onions, but in all other areas of my life, it's a lesson yet to be learned fully.

No comments: