With Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaching, many of us are afraid to truly trust ourselves in the kitchen.
Is it because we’re afraid to fall flat on our faces, if we combine the wrong ingredients or flavors?
Is it because we’re employing dangerous objects (knives, choppers, etc), volatile elements (intense heat, gas flames, microwaves, boiling liquids), and risky chemical processes – all in a non-laboratory setting?
(After all, chemistry class was a properly equipped and supervised environment, and we still set off the occasional window-shattering explosion, didn’t we? Alright, well, maybe that was just me.)
Or is a big part of the problem the fact that recipes vary so wildly in specificity that some are like Alchemy (”Taketh a fyne pinche of Agrimony mixed withe a dogsboot of Aqua Tappia and setteth the whole upon a proper flayme until well borkked…”), while others are like Particle Physics?
It’s hard to lay blame, since there is no one universal formula or template for recipe writing. The result really depends on how much effort the cook is willing to invest in getting it right, i.e., comprehensible and reproducible.
Having written a lot of recipes for my website as well as for contests, I’ve come to respect how very tricky the process can be. Scribbling down cryptic notes along the way is fine, but when it comes to writing the actual recipe that others will follow, the accurate recollection and description of each step in the process is critical.
It’s also surprisingly time consuming: it can take five times as long to resolve the grammar and phrasing ambiguities in describing how to make the dish than it does to make the dish itself. So much depends, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, upon whether the red wheelbarrow is glazed before or after the white chickens go in the oven.
But just as there are many different recipe styles, there are many different kinds of cooks with different skill and comfort levels in the kitchen. Some of us require recipes to be as exacting as moon-shot trigonometry; others see recipes like the melody of an improvisational jazz piece – a jumping-off point.
When it comes to reading others’ recipes, I must confess I belong to the latter group. In the many places I’ve lived over the years, I can’t recall ever keeping cookbooks in the kitchen. They’re far more likely to be in a bookcase in the living room or bedroom; I see them more as pleasure reading than instruction manuals. If an inspiring recipe makes me want to jump up and cook, nine times out of ten I leave the book behind.
It’s not that I’m a great chef with a perfect memory; I’ve just learned to trust myself.
It works like this: as you’re reading a recipe, take a little extra time to visualize, to imagine. Try this exercise. First, read the ingredients list, but not the instructions. Then, picture the ingredients as they’re described (cubed, minced, shredded, etc.). Imagine the flavors and seasonings interacting. Imagine, just from the ingredients, how the end result might taste, before you move on to reading the instructions.
If you’re in doubt, smell. Ever wonder if such disparate elements as nutmeg and cilantro would work well together? Smell them, one after the other, and then together. Just relax your preconceptions, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that your brain is more than happy to help by processing the data and tossing up conclusions.
Every flavor, every aroma, every dish we’ve ever experienced has taught us something, whether we realize it or not. Scent memory is stored in the oldest part of the brain, and is intimately entwined with our sense of taste, which is legendary for its evocative powers. In other words, we know volumes more than we think we know about food, and by extension, cooking.
You can do a similar exercise with a different recipe. Don’t read the ingredients. Start by reading just the instructions. Visualize the processes and equipment. Imagine the interactions of the foods and the effects that time and temperature will have on them, how they will simmer or caramelize or rise in the oven. Picture how the end result will look and smell, and how it will look on the plate.
The more you do this, and the more you cook, the surer you will become. In a short time, all your multi-sensory experience with food and cooking will flow together and you’ll find that the visualizing and analysis become second nature. You’ll spot errors in recipes before you prepare them. You’ll go to restaurants and be able to intuit how dishes were prepared and be able to reproduce – or reinterpret them – at home. And, because of what you learn, you’ll be more confident in your own creations.
Imagine. Taste. Smell. Learn. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Sure, you’ll make mistakes (Lord knows I still make some doozys), but remember this: every old tradition began as someone’s new idea.
Close your eyes and trust yourself. You’ll be fine.
“…taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
--Doug DuCap/ HuggingtheCoast.Com