Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I did it my way

"You can learn many things about cooking, about ingredients, cutting combinations, and procedures, but even more fundamentally you can learn to act on your own experience, outside of recipes, relying on your innate capacity to taste and sense and decide for yourself what you like. By this I do not mean following your instincts, which seems to me a rather amorphous concept, but being present, carefully observing the obvious, acquainting your palate with your palette."--Edward Espe Brown, from The Complete Tassajara Cookbook

This weekend up in the family cabin in Maine I volunteered to cook for my in-laws. The last time we were there, my husband's cousins were also visiting and my cousin Mikki and my mother-in-law did all the cooking while I sat back and enjoyed the spoils. I also enjoy cooking, and in the interest of proving that I'm not a princess expecting to be served all the time, I figured it was my turn to seize the wooden spoon.

I had brought an advanced reading copy of Zen chef Edward Espe Brown's new book The Complete Tassajara Cookbook. Ever since I saw the movie about him, How to Cook Your Life,
I've been curious to try some of his recipes. I'm not a vegetarian, but Mike is, and it wouldn't hurt for me to incorporate more vegetables into my starch and sugar diet. What I didn't remember about Brown's way of cooking was 1. he takes his time cooking, communing with the ingredients, which five years ago would have made me roll my eyes and dismiss him as a New Age weirdo, but now I think it's interesting. I find that when I'm in the zone, cooking can be very Zen-like. Oh, and 2. his menus don't have a central, meaty entree. Instead they're a balance of tastes, smells, and textures. So don't expect steak, mashed potatoes, and green peas.

Since my foot fracture, I've been spending the bulk of my time on horizontal surfaces. I couldn't believe how much I could sleep! I hoped that all the dozing would make my foot heal faster, but no such luck--I was still hobbling around in pain. I asked Mike to go out and fetch the ingredients for the menu I had planned for the evening: Potatoes Baked with Wine and Cream, Tomato Salad with Provolone and Fresh Herbs, and Asparagus Sauteed with Roasted Almonds. Having spent the bulk of his day working on computer virus protection while I was off in La La Land, he wasn't exactly thrilled to be chasing after fresh chives and sliced almonds. But he did it for me anyway, the sweetie pie, and then I set to work. Problem was, dinner was supposed to be at 6:30, and I was only getting started around 6:15.

No problem, I thought, we'll eat on New York time, which is anywhere from 8 to 11PM. And that was about how long it was going to take, I discovered, when I glanced down at the recipe for the potatoes and it said they were to bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, and then for an additional 20 minutes on top of that!

Taking a deep breath, I started on the potato dish first, cutting the medium red bliss potatoes into quarters. Although Edward Espe Brown espouses putting the recipe aside and just being present with the ingredients and how they're coming together, I stuck with the recipe. No way did I want to serve uncooked potatoes or greasy asparagus to my in-laws of just two years.

As I said, when I cook, the Zen part arises when I'm completely focused on the preparation. I don't like cooking with others because I get easily distracted and start to feel self-conscious about my methods. When Mike and I were first dating, we talked about all the dinners we'd cook together, jazz music playing on the overhead speakers as we diced and stirred together. But that's usually not how it happens. When I'm cooking, I often try to persuade him to watch Tank Overload or whatever other heavy artillery show he can find on Discovery while I enjoy having the kitchen all to myself. Mike has strong opinions on how things should be done, and I often fall short of those rules. That's because for me cooking (and most other learned skills) is trial and error...making a mess, cutting too much off, doing it the slow way until I learn the shortcuts on my own. In other words, doing it MY WAY. Mike has never complained about the results before (well, maybe that one time when I attempted chick pea curry...)

I remember one of the first times Mike and my mother interacted. I was throwing a holiday cookie-making party in my tiny kitchen in Hoboken. My choice of cookie were rollouts, and as I placed the cookie cutter on various corners of the dough, both my mother and my future husband seemed itching to say something. Before I knew it, they had seized the cookie cutter and were stamping away.

"You're wasting a lot of dough the way you're doing it," my mother said, "it will take forever if you do it this way. You have to cut them closer together." Mike echoed Mom's sentiment, and also was determined to remove the shapes from the floured surface before I inadvertently tore off a leg or an antler.

I was used to my mother hovering over me as I learned to cook, adjusting the flame under pots, adding a pinch more seasoning, securing lids. But now Mike was doing it, too. He had worked in kitchens before, as he's very fond of reminding me, and my mother has cooked dinner for our family almost every night for as long as I can remember. I felt trapped, doomed to the role of prep cook for all eternity because I would never be able to match their collective experience.

Back in Maine: As I was putting the potatoes in the oven, there were stirrings in the livingroom about when dinner would be served. I didn't want to tell the truth, but I whispered to Mike's mom, "The potatoes are going to take a while!" I didn't mind waiting--I wanted to taste slow-cooked food the way Edward Espe Brown intended, and would happily drink a glass of wine and munch on cheese in the meantime. But my mother-in-law is practical, extremely capable, and no-nonsense. She intervened, raising the temperature of the oven so the potatoes would cook faster. She told me, "No way is it going to take that long. These are small potatoes. I'll bet they'll be done in 1/2 hour!"

Again, it was like too many cooks in the kitchen. Though I knew she was probably right and I should respect her experience, I wanted to follow the recipe as it was written, cook the way I wanted to cook, even if it meant taking the longer path.

I cut the tomatoes for the salad and snapped the ends off the asparagus, all the while conscience of the fact that my new family probably thought I was crazy for making a meatless meal that took three hours. By following my mother-in-laws advice, the potatoes were ready in a little over an hour, not two, and we didn't have to eat at midnight. Of course, I couldn't resist reading aloud Edward Espe Brown's commentary on the menu, how it was "a picture painted with flavors." But even I had to laugh when I read "Potatoes baked this way have a marvelous earthiness...the flavor of purified, refined dirt." Hmmm. I hope nothing I ever serve tastes like dirt.

My in-laws were very polite and generous even though they were probably wondering where's the beef? For once I felt virtuous eating a meal of vegetables instead of white rice with melted Jack cheese (one of Mike's favorites.) And I felt a sense of accomplishment at turning a bag of produce into a meal.

But next time, I'm sending Mike, my in-laws, and my parents to a movie while I lose myself in cooking, Jennifer-style.


Jason Miller, said...

I also find cooking a great Yoga, but only when Tiff is not in the room.

Jennifer Campaniolo said...

I can imagine that! She'd be following you around with a sponge and kitchen cleaner!