Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bastardized Stewed Vegetable Gratin

I didn't make the simple tomato sauce. We had rye bread and Dubliner cheese and a simple vegetable gratin recipe I couldn't wait to elaborate on. So I did. It called for celery, carrots, and onions. I didn't have carrots so I substituted them with garlic, green and red peppers, and peas. I decided against green apples and portobello mushrooms but in retrospect, why the hell not? Lazy probably. I also forgot I had to dump a cup of cheese into the vegetable stew but I'd already added some apple cider vinegar that was giving off such a pleasant smell I couldn't bring myself to do it. I added sliced rye bread brushed with olive oil and covered with dubliner cheese (R said it, doesn't work that well for melting, should've gone with the Manchego), into the oven for 20 minutes. We had this with an unremarkable Chianti which I think was good mostly because it wasn't bad but I could've been drinking water. 

I asked R what he thought of my concoction.

He and my Dad generally have the same response to this question: "Tasty."

Tasty: flavorful, pleasurable to the sense of taste, showing good taste. I guess "tasty" is the best way to describe my cooking at least most of the time. Smells awesome and it's tasty. Which is good. But I want it to be supertasty.

I realized what's missing to bring my cooking to another level is to harmonize the tastiness. When I follow a recipe I generally find a level of harmony that my improvisations lack. People who write recipes generally have a sense of how to combine ingredients beyond just oh this tastes good and so does this. They (usually) understand how the combinations work to get the most out of each other, what sort of heat and time is required to bring out the best in the whole, and how to pair dishes with each other (and wine). People go to school to learn this. And usually, I don't have much patience for the process that leaves you with restaurant quality food. 

Which is why I love Mark Bittman.

I first discovered The Minimalist while browsing nytimes.com (I do that a lot, as you'll come to realize), summer was starting, I was just starting to date R, we were in Williamsburg, I'd sent him to the Farmer's Market (I do this when I feel like experimenting with things I've never tried before, most of his culinary decisions are color-based) and he'd come back with beets. Bittman had just published some simple picnic ideas. About 40 of them in three pages. I really liked this style. No list of ingredients, no complicated preparations, just fresh ingredients, good combinations, and tone that said, this is so easy, just do it like this and if you can't then do it however you can, here's some alternatives. I was hooked. I made the beet salad that topped the list and it was incredibly tasty. I made several more and over time I would read his column regularly and try out odd recipes. What Bittman did, as The Minimalist, was give the home cook the power to be a good cook, without the pressure of being a restaurant cook. Bittman never studied cooking, he just took the time to cook every day for over twenty years. 

I learned to cook over the phone. My first summer in New York, also the summer when I started listening to reggaeton out of nostalgia, I called my grandmother and asked her to tell me how to make rice and beans. Four years later I'm still figuring out how to get rice right but the beans I have mastered. In those early months I would panic about getting the recipe right, I obsessed over amounts, time, heat, order of ingredients. I still do but I'm a lot smarter about it. I still yell at R when I ask him to pass my a spoon so I can stir something before it burns to the bottom of the pan and he wants to finish doing something else first. But I don't panic that the food won't cook or that it will be bad. I just want it to be better. 

The above paragraph is a partial lie. That wasn't when I learned to cook, that was when I began to own my cooking. Rewind a little further in my life. Dre as a kid. My Dad making his spaghetti sauce which was perhaps the most delicious thing in the world as far as I knew, asking to help out. He taught me to chop onions, garlic, open cans, use spices. Everything I make has a base those first impromptu lessons. Most of my recipes start with the same ingredients, in the same way, a familiarity almost as old as me. 

But I did start my endeavours as a cook over the phone. Trying to make that recipe. Sophomore year of college, a semester ahead of that summer when I began to own my cooking and listen to reggaeton, I was dating a rather talented cook who was also very critical. Most of my self-consciousness when it comes to cooking stems from that relationship, but so do some great recipes and ideas. To be fair, he was never cruel, I was just never pleased with anything I made while I was with him. That said, I learned a lot from him. And one night I wanted to make my dad's spaghetti sauce and impress. My cellphone against my ear I wrote down the ingredients and what I had to do, and during the process called often to ask if I was doing it right. 

I was so obsessed with whether I was doing it right. Until I rebelled and just did things as I felt and made tasty concoctions. Now I've swung back and I'm trying to find a balance in the middle. How to make something "right" that is still "my own". I'll take Mark Bittman's alternative and don't worry if it's not perfect approach over Julia Child's it must be this way any day. But I do want to move on from tasty to supertasty. So I will learn to harmonize and often that just means simplify and take a little more time. 

I'll let you know.

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