Why It's Best To Be Selfish When You Cook
I think cooking has to be a selfish act. We might think we cook to please others, or to pass on family traditions, but in fact we must do it first for ourselves.
I'm not suggesting that the time we spend in our kitchen be some kind of exercise in self-esteem. Certainly in this day of boundless narcissism we don't need more of that. Instead, what I mean is that when we cook, regardless if it's for a solitary weeknight supper or a family meal or a holiday fête, we should insist on choosing recipes that give us comfort. Not mac-and-cheese comfort, but the kind that comes from knowing we won't mess up, or that the broccoli and cheese omelet we're making tonight will taste exactly as when we made it last week, or a new recipe from last week's New York Times that caught our eye and appetite that we're sure will turn out right in our unpracticed hands. Comfort gives us confidence to proceed, to take risks, and to ask others to eat what we've cooked without the fear of failure.
I'd even go as far as saying that absent such selfishness, we can't cook well. It's like any other competency: who knows better than I what my limits may be? Cooking isn't a high wire act. But much of what we do, alone in the kitchen facing a recipe printout and a pile of ingredients, is done without a net and it helps to be steady. Or at least to know where we're headed.
A few years ago my friend Pat and I decided to make our first bouillabaisse. Bouillabaisse is the traditional Provençal seafood soup with origins in the French seaport city of Marseilles. While recipes may vary, most versions include several kinds of non-oily fish, shellfish like mussels and crabs, and sometimes also octopus or sea urchins. Its delicate broth is flavored with fennel, Pernod, saffron, tomatoes, garlic, and onion. The finished soup is served with pieces of grilled bread spread with rouille, a rich mayonnaise made with garlic and saffron.
I had learned in culinary school how to make a classic fumé, or fish stock, and after reading a half-dozen or so recipes, Pat and I figured that together we could do this. After all, the year before she and I had taken on cassoulet, the famed French duck, sausage, and white bean casserole, with great success. It would be a fun way to spend the day together and besides, our husbands loved it. Why not?
But I forgot one cooking essential: if you don't have a palate for what you're making you will have no northern star. I not only had never made bouillabaisse before, I didn't particularly like it. And Pat had never even tasted it. Despite what Nathan Myhrvold may extravagantly explore in his six-volume study of modern gastronomy, the point of cooking isn't chemistry. It's about eating. So if you don't know what you're aiming for in flavor, texture and appearance, you'll never get it right. In culinary school we're taught to taste what we're cooking throughout the process. But what difference does that make if we don't know what we're tasting for?
So without discerning the flavor of a good bouillabaisse, we had no comfort in the kitchen and spent a good part of the day anxiously asking each other at every step, "what do you think?" Our decision to make this very expensive and time-consuming soup was a generous gesture for our husbands. Had it instead first been a selfish act -- as the earlier cassoulet had been (a dish that is on my short list for last meals) -- I am sure we would have made a fabulous bouillabaisse. But instead, after spending a small fortune on the ingredients and two days to make stock and soup and mayonnaise by hand, our bouillabaisse was terrible. It was briny, but not in a good way. And all the seafood tasted the same. Flat and pale. My dear husband was kind, but I knew disappointment when I saw it, especially as I watched him spoon gobs of rouille into the soup. Anything to mask the flavor.
I never made it again. But I learned the lesson of why being selfish in the kitchen is a necessity. While generosity says to first consider others' preferences, go ahead and cook for yourself first. Everyone else will happily follow.
At The City Cook we spend nearly all our time thinking and writing about what we put on our plates instead of the plates themselves. But in fact the world of tabletop -- dishes, table linens, glassware, and flatware -- all provide an opportunity for expression and creative presentation. Our modern home environments have become rather scrubbed, with the norm sometimes resembling the interior of a Crate & Barrel store. Now there's nothing wrong with that and I own and use some favorite pieces from C&B, especially glassware.
But as you'll learn from Shax Riegler, author of Dish: 813 Colorful, Wonderful Dinner Plates (Artisan Books, October 2011, Hardcover, $35.00), it's a big, colorful, and eclectic dish world out there. Since there are so many to pick from, why have white plates? If that's what you prefer, at least you may want to know that all white dishes are not the same and there are scores of them from which to choose.
With a nearly completed Ph.D. from the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, and as features editor for House Beautiful magazine, Shax is both fascinated by and highly knowing about our decorative environments and how we choose to live in them. His book is an irresistible candy store for anyone with an interest in decorative domesticity.
My own taste in dishes has changed over the years and while once I favored plain and white, I now mix inexpensive white bowls with traditional china patterns I have gradually collected (thank you, Ebay). But whether you're an Anglophile or modernist, have a butler's pantry worth of shelves or space only for one pattern in a service for four, Shax Riegler's splendid book may inspire you to re-think how you dress your dinner table.
I recently spoke with Shax about his book and his own exploration of the decorative world of dishes. See our link to hear that conversation.
The Changing Cooking Season: Early Spring
When the seasons change it can be a challenge to decide what to cook. It's once again time to reset our cooking attitudes as spring is officially here. And soon it will be gastronomically here as well.
So what should we be thinking about?
Asparagus. Roasted, steamed and dressed with lemon and butter, puréed into soup, wrapped in store-bought puff pastry and baked into hors d'oeuvres, used in risotto or pasta, blanched and added to salads, or added to stir fries.
We've added a link to a recipe for fried asparagus adapted from Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook. The stalks aren't deep fried but instead dipped in egg, coated in fine bread crumbs, and sautéed in olive oil until crispy.
Fennel. This bulbous, fresh, and ever so slightly licorice-flavored vegetable is a great transition vegetable from winter to early summer. I love it best sliced very thin and used raw in salads but it also can be baked or used in gratins.
End-of-Season Citrus. Our grocery stores are still filled with winter citrus and their bright flavors are wonderful when added to salads or in desserts. I've been making pound cake and serving it with lemon curd, and adding orange segments, especially blood orange, to spicy arugula. Grapefruit and avocado is also a classic salad combo.
Ramps and Spring Garlic. The first ones that come to market can be shockingly expensive but wait a few weeks and as long as the weather cooperates, the prices will drop. Ramps are wild spring onions and spring garlic, which by appearance resemble ramps, have small, tender bulbs still on their green stalks. We have a recipe for turning spring garlic into a pesto to serve with pasta or seafood. We also have a recipe for wrapping ramps or spring garlic or scallions in pancetta and roasted to create an irresistible treat. See our recipe links.
- The Kitchen Calculator PRO is a cooking app that does metric conversions as well as other kinds of kitchen math, such as changing recipe quantities for when you increase or decrease the number of servings. It costs $3.99 at the iTunes app store. Below we've added a link for more information.
- Soon our farmers will be bringing the first crops of the season to our markets. Depending on your climate these may include apricots and strawberries, which may inspire some of you to think about canning and other kinds of food preservation. If you're inexperienced in (or intimidated by) the world of food preservation, maybe this is the year you'll decide to try it. I'm now in my fourth year of canning and every time this past winter that I opened a pint of sour cherries to add to a roast duck I gave myself a pat on the back for making the effort last July.
Canning and other kinds of preservation are a kind of food handling that needs precision but just follow the directions and you can teach yourself. You'll need some equipment but it's not costly to get into the game; about $25 should do it. Visit the folks at Ball Corporation at FreshPreserving.com for equipment, and choose one of the increasing number of good books that will teach you how, including Eugenia Bone's Well-Preserved, published in 2009. Like me, Eugenia lives and does her canning in a New York City apartment so this is certainly a city kitchen-friendly activity.
Also on the subject is a new book by Chef Paul Virant called The Preservation Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, April 2012, 304 pages, hardcover with color photographs, $29.99). Written with Kate Leahy, this book provides both instructions for canning, curing meats, and making relishes and conserves, as well as seasonal recipes that incorporate many of the preserved foods. Two fruit preserves that I plan to try are his Strawberry and Pinot Noir Jam and his Apricot Jelly. We've been given permission to share one of his seasonal recipes and I chose from his spring list, Braised Chicken Legs in Pearl Pasta with Swiss Chard and Pickled Stems. See our links for the recipe.
It's the season for Passover and Easter and I know that many of you will be cooking. Some of you have probably already been at it, preparing soups and desserts, ironing tablecloths, and checking the wine. In the spirit of these holidays of renewal and the comfort that comes from that, please give yourself the holiday gift of being selfish as you cook. All your guests will be glad you did.
Happy Passover and Happy Easter!