Monday, September 21, 2009

It's All in the Follow Through

I'm not Julia Child. Or Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, Ina Garten, Tyler Florence...heck, I'm not even Brian Boitano. That is to say, when it comes to cooking, I'm a pretty rank amateur. Working in NYC and doing the daily commute from Connecticut meant lots of quick meals and carry-out from shops in the Grand Central Market. Being unemployed, though, means time to cook, or in my case, to learn how to cook.

I went to Catholic school for all 12 years and while we did have a Home Economics kind of course that we went to in a nearby public school, I wasn't overly interested and it was not very thorough. Oddly, I can sew, do various kinds of needlework and make a mean fabric yo-yo, but the cooking bug always passed me by.

Don't misunderstand, I've always appreciated a well made meal...especially the way the Europeans make them. Super fresh high-quality ingredients used in hearty and simple dishes. I had a killer Boeuf Bourguignon in Paris, an amazing Venison Stew in Vienna (with a side of the most verdant pureed spinach I've ever seen!) and a Goat Cheese Salad in Budapest that to this day makes me nostalgic--and hungry.

So obviously I knew what I wanted to be able to make and that I was going to have to sort out the cooking thing. My great friend Barb is not only a wonderful dining companion when I'm home in Minnesota, but she's also the best cook I know. (This isn't a dis to my mother, she's great at many things but she's never been an enthusiastic cook...she has many other wonderful qualities and talents, though!) Barb got me started with a few magazines and some recipes and I was off and running. My first major successes were Wild Rice Soup (like they used to make at Dayton's department stores) and popovers. Chuffed doesn't begin to describe my feeling of victory--especially with the popovers. In my kitchen, I am happy to celebrate small victories as great successes. Fast forward a few months and I'm building my repertoire and tackling more complicated dishes--and yes, I'm planning Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon next time my boyfriend comes down.

Today's recipe was a hearty and rustic Cream of Mushroom Soup--no great shakes, but I was making a recipe from Cook's Country (those amazing folks at America's Test Kitchen) and with most of their dishes they include a good long notes section  and some rather specific methods. After badly bungling a savoury cracker recipe in the early going, I've become much more attentive to how recipes ask you to do certain things. There is always a method to the seeming madness. From how to brown the butter to give the mushrooms and leeks a nutty, rich base to better ways to clean the leeks--they are right on. There are purposes behind everything. (Hello, they are America's Test Kitchen, they test and re-test everything, right?!?!)

And shout outs to the incredible and varied vegetable stands and farmers' markets all over CT and NY. I've had access to the best ingredients and it just proved what I'd figured out in France...fresh ingredients that aren't over-processed yield great food that is good for you.

I'm happy to report that the soup was a smashing success and it's going to make great leftovers for the rest of the week. And I've also mastered (LOL, if you can manage to "overwhelm" a recipe) those savoury crackers and they are an evening favorite when paired with wine and cocktails. If you check in on my Twitter feed you'll likely see both my failures and triumphs featured now and then. Let's hope there are more of the former than the latter. I secretly (or publicly, now I guess) love that I'd rather have my own fresh tomato soup or rhubarb dessert than one made by someone else. Probably this is partly, at least, a symptom of being without work--you take your victories whenever and wherever you can find them. Of course I'll still covet some of the dishes I've had on my travels here and abroad (in addition to most Indian food and the burgers at Shake Shack in NYC), but it makes me happy to know that I'm perfectly capable of cooking what I am interested in eating. It's good to learn and try something new.

The other small off-shoot of this is that it did remind me that as silly as some things may seem, there are reasons for doing them. If you set up the various components of the recipe the right way you are rewarded (usually) with a delicious dish. Things go wrong, popovers don't pop over and some easy recipes are too easy and watered down to be what they purport to be, just like life I guess. Whether it's washing the leeks properly or working hard on a goal, nothing worthwhile is ever easy. We all know that, but as I've become a better cook, I realize how satisfying it is to perfect the fundamentals in order to better my odds as I undertake more difficult challenges. In tennis, golf, discus throwing, cooking and life, it's all about set up and the follow through.

Happy almost Autumn, everyone...(a little Kandinsky--Autumn in Bavaria, 1908--for the new season!)

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