The Comfort Zone
Contemplating the Habits of City Cooking
I recently was at a (home-cooked) dinner party where the topic of cooking inevitably came up. I say inevitably because unless a meal has been cooked by someone who doesn't end up joining you at the table, how can those eating it not acknowledge that one of their own did all this for them? At this dinner we were treated to perfectly roasted branzino that had been stuffed with herbs and lemon. We each got our own whole fish and then served ourselves from bowls of jewel-like vegetables, my favorite being sweet kernels of first-of-the-season fresh corn studded with cubes of even sweeter mango and specks of cilantro. Our hostess, who was also the cook, was shy to take all the compliments with the apology that this is how she always cooks. She was right. I've been lucky to eat at her table often and there is a delicious consistency in the flavors and textures of all her cooking, as well as an Asian-Latin fusion thing she always does.
This led me to think about how most of us usually cook the same way, making familiar recipes, and I wondered if we do so out of habit or is there something more complicated going on. Are we being fearful or closed-minded? Or both. Or neither? Maybe it's not complicated at all. Maybe we just cook the food we like to eat.
I have been thinking about this more often since I launched The City Cook. I'm feeling the responsibility of being attentive to all cuisines, levels of technical skill, flavors and interests. But the truth is that I don't like to cook all types of food and my palate has a point-of-view. I have an admitted bias that favors classic French, Italian, and Greek cuisines. Some of this is due to how I learned to cook and my early kitchen influences. Mostly it's because these are the foods that taste best to me. But New York is the world's kitchen so how can The City Cook stay in one home cook's comfort zone?
I don't think this dilemma is unique to cooking. We often get to choose between going deep or going wide. For example, when we travel: do I want to get to know one culture really well or do I want to see many places? The practical limitations of time and money may decide some of this for us, but even without restraints, many of us still have an inclination to either drill down or cast far.
In Luigi Barzini's enlightening book, The Italians, he writes of a Roman restaurant owner who was asked if he ever ate French food. "Why?" was his confounded but sincere answer. You might blame the man for Roman provincialism but perhaps he was merely content with what he knew and loved. Or maybe he remained challenged by all there was to learn and experience in his own native and extraordinary cuisine.
Choosing to walk a certain path doesn't necessarily mean it's a comfort zone. As home cooks we may default to the same recipes and ingredients, but it doesn't equate to missing imagination or courage. We just may lack time to try new things or maybe there's a finicky eater at our table. Long before I conceived of The City Cook, I would occasionally hand my husband a cookbook or recent issue of Gourmet magazine and say to him, "choose anything and I'll make it." I believed this was how I would become a better cook and thanks to his willingness to risk my failures (of which I've had more than a few), I've been right. But I don't get to do that as often as I'd like, gambling that he and I will both lose our appetites from weekly repeats of roast chicken and steamed asparagus. I sometimes think that's what eating in restaurants is best for: to get inspiration and stimulation to bring home to our own kitchens.
The City Cook doesn't have a comfort zone. We're here to cheer you on whether it's making your signature lasagna or your first attempt at using lemon grass in a sauce reduction. We're here to help you find favorite ingredients or foreign ones. We just want you to cook.