Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Cook's Journey

I'm turning into one of those cooks, the ones that can't make anything the exact same way twice, because they're always futzing about with the recipe, trying a pinch more of this, a little less of that, and a whole lot of "Hey, maybe we substitute these for those and flip the whole arrangement the other way and how does that work?"

I wasn't always like that - when I was a callow youth, I learned just enough to be dangerous in the kitchen.  Oh, I thought I could cook, but it was clumsy and frequently terrifying.  Every once in a while, I'd screw up in just the right way and make something not just edible, but tasty.  That just served to make me go back in and cook some more, with usually unappetizing results.  The chocolate chip cookies I baked made me think I could do more, and I made brownies (but forgot the sugar).  I baked sugar cookies, but was out of vegetable oil so I used olive oil.  Seriously, I look back and want to reach through time and shake myself.

About 3 years ago, I lost my job.  Well, not so much lost, as got it pulled out of my hands and shipped overseas.  I'm only a wee bit bitter, because some things have worked out better for me.  I've had time to be with my kids, and while the money's been tight, I've also been able to devote more time and energy to cooking with Real Food, not foodlike products.  My wife, Mel, has a good job, and we're doing OK.  Not great, but OK - which in this economy, I guess is better than OK.

At first, my focus was on getting something on the table, anything.  Lots of macaroni & cheese, some simple recipes that aren't really cooking, just assembling ingredients.  That got boring, though, and convenience food is expensive.  We've got a nice selection of cookbooks - several editions of the Joy of Cooking, Julia Child's The Way to Cook, some regional cookbooks and others.  I started poring through those, googling lists of ingredients to find meals, and eventually, I'm not sure when, I was actually cooking, not just painting by the numbers.

It's a good feeling, even when the kids turn their noses up at whatever I've cooked.  I still screw up occasionally - the grouper filet I cooked was, while not a disaster, certainly not terribly edible.

Mel teases me that, if I wrote a cookbook, it'd be full of recipes like:

Serves 4
First, catch a rabbit....
I like to work backwards, and see how the type of ingredients you start with change things.  I've brewed beer, made butter, cheese and pasta.  I lived on a farm during high school, so I've raised chickens, turkeys, pigs, ducks, geese, goats, rabbits and cows, and slaughtered and dressed most of that list.  I've grown my own vegetables and fruit, and helped can them.  It's fascinating, though not always efficient, both in terms of money and time.

I have my "go-to" recipes - or, rather, recipe frameworks - and I try to work themes around them.  We're slightly limited in that Mel, by ethical choice, prefers not to eat mammals.  It's a choice I respect, though I'm more catholic in my animal flesh consumption.  So it's a lot of chicken, turkey, fish and shellfish.  When she's out of town on a business trip, I'll often grill some burgers or steaks for me and the kids.

Lately, I've been trying different grains - white rice led to brown rice, and from there to quinoa, orzo, risotto, polenta, red rice, wild rice.  Finding the right combination of spices and flavors to make the chicken and grain and vegetable complement each other is, right now, trial and error.  As I go along here, I'll post some photos and describe some meals - the successes and the failures.

Next time, I'll talk about pigs and what they're good for.

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