Let’s Start with This
Fearless in the kitchen my mother-in-law, Helen, would take on complicated recipes and conquer them. One of my favorites is her Black Forest Cake. Creating this sumptuous combination of to-die-for chocolate sponge cake from scratch, its rich cherry filling and topped with homemade whipped cream is a two-day effort which she handles masterfully. She said that she didn’t realize that some of the recipes she took on were supposed to be difficult. She saw something she liked and set about making it. Helen quickly became a wonderful cook, but like the rest of us she didn’t start out that way.
When Helen talks about her early days of cooking, she likes to share the story of one of her first attempts in the kitchen. As a newlywed she wanted to surprise her husband, John, with a nice meal after a long day’s work. Recipe in hand she purchased all the ingredients and immersed herself in the process. Her problems began shortly after she commenced the preparation and by the time John arrived home things had gotten a bit out of control. He entered the kitchen to find Helen crying and more than a bit distraught, “Oh I am so glad that your home. Everything is burning, and I don’t know what to do!” John in his quiet and calm manner walked to the stove and turned the burners off. “Let’s start with this.” He said.
Learning to cook is an act of overcoming fears of the unknown and taking baby steps into the incredible world of food, from the simple to the exotic. Cooking is a sensory exploration of culture and diversity which challenges and rewards each of the senses. The feel of kneaded dough as you shape it into bread, the sound of bacon sizzling in a hot pan, the sight of bubbling cheese on a pizza fresh out of your oven, the sweet smell of a baking cake and the taste of adventure as you try a newly created dish for the first time.
Shortly after moving out on my own I decided to try my hand at baking a cake. It was not to be a fancy from scratch cake or anything like that. My first attempt was to be a boxed Bundt cake mix, yellow with a chocolate swirl. I followed the directions to the letter except for one small detail. I didn’t quite get the whole swirling in the chocolate thing and simply mixed everything together. Following directions has never been my strong suit. However wonderful the end result may have tasted, there was a problem which overshadowed my creation. I had baked a grey cake. Yes, soft and moist with the icing drizzled over it, it outwardly looked wonderful. It was that first slice that made folks say with a smile, “No thanks.” They then ate it anyway. For years my sister liked to laugh about my grey cake. It still brings a smile to my face when I think of her teasing me about it.
Cooking goes well beyond stereotypical roles. It is not only an essential skill for boys and girls of all ages, it is an act of love and self-preservation. What better way is there to show someone how much you care than by providing sustenance in a delicious and thoughtful manner? Self-preservation comes into play if you live alone or your better half does not cook and you would like something more than microwaved mush or a burger from some flip’m and serve’m place.
Personally, I am not a fan of microwaved meals, though I have consumed my share and will in all likelihood do so again. I have never once had a microwaved chicken parmesan that came even close to what can be prepared at home. The frozen food isle is full of boxes with wonderful photos of tasty dishes accompanied by mouthwatering descriptions. The marketers do amazing things with fancy packaging to entice you. Unfortunately, when you pop the paper bowl out of the microwave and peal back the plastic you find a bubbling lump of something that somewhat resembles the picture on the box, with an added crusty brownish goo around the edges. All of your senses cry, no!
Sadly, we get similar fare at many of the overpriced corporate chain restaurants. High dollar TV advertisements seduce us with sumptuous close-ups of steaming lobster and juicy steaks. We see beautiful young people laughing and having a wonderful time, as a piping hot plate of ‘you name it’ is delivered to the table by an attractive and happy server. If we were permitted to peek inside the kitchen of these over-marketed jingle-enriched eateries, we would most likely find stacks of heat-and-eat portions lining the freezer. We place our order and into the nuker it goes. It is then served to us as though it has been freshly prepared. Complicit in the deception we smile and dig in.
We are so used to eating over-processed sugar-laden, frozen and canned food that we have lost our sense of what fresh is. The only way to assure that what is on your plate is fresh and of good quality is to purchase and prepare it yourself. This is not as difficult as it may seem and with a little practice you can be creating wonderful dishes of your own. Once you taste and begin to know real food, in all of its glorious and wholesome freshness, the rewards to the palate are exceptional, carrying you to a kind of food nirvana.
So how do we get to the place of creating our own heavenly table fare? When someone says to me, “I don’t know how to cook”. What I hear is, “I don’t understand how to decipher a recipe”. I have found that once we overcome our fear, recipes and learning to cook a few basics is actually pretty easy. Many of us are intimidated by the language of cooking. Things like, the difference between simmering and boiling or even scalding, seem overwhelming. Then there are terms such as, fold it in, and caramelize; these instructions may shake the neophytes resolve and send them to the freezer for another square meal. Weights and measures may also confound the novice chef. Faced with a list of abbreviations such as add tsp. of this or a tbsp. of that followed by a ds. of something else. Then gently mix until to desired consistency and fold in the reaming items. Arghhh! Insert image of head exploding here. Thanks to Al Gore for inventing the internet, we now have at our fingertips, all of the answers to our culinary questions. I’ve provided a link to weights, measures and abbreviations below. They are not as mysterious as they seem and once you’ve used them a couple of times you’ll be measuring and adding a dash of flavor well on your way to gastronomic delight.
My wife is a vegetarian and I am not. Thankfully she is not a militant vegetarian, so we don’t require two sets of pots and pans. Though she won’t eat it herself she makes a pretty good meatloaf. Nearly every evening we prepare our separate meals together. Usually she’ll take two burners and I the other two. I’ll often throw something on the grill. We chop, slice and sauté our separate ingredients, chat about the day, life and family. We’ll bake, fry and steam our way through the prep, checking in occasionally on how much time the other has left. If there is something like a salad or a side that we both enjoy we’ll incorporate it into our menu. We’ve been doing this for so long that we are able finish up cooking about the same time and sit down to a meal together. Our son used this arrangement to his advantage growing up, always having a choice of veg, non-veg or combining the two.
I called Helen this morning and asked her about her early days of cooking and she shared a little story that seems appropriate here. In one of her first attempts at pot roast she had a question about it, so she called her mother-in-law in search of an answer. She explained where she was in the process and what her question was. The woman who answered the phone replied, “Well I’m not your mom but here is what you need to do.” There are so many cooks out there willing to share their insights, shortcuts and experience. We need only ask.
Cooking is truly all about sharing. Once you delve into it you’ll find yourself inviting friends over for a bowl of pasta and that new meatball recipe. With each meal you prepare and share you are giving a little of yourself that will come back to you in many delicious ways. Cooking for family and friends deepens the bond between you and builds wonderful memories for your children as they experience your giving.
Don’t be afraid to give it a try. The worst that can happen is you throw it out and grab a pretty box from the freezer. But I would be willing to bet that won’t happen.
William C. Judge 2018