The Best Laid Plans

I was a very naughty girl last week and didn't write anything. Shame on me.

seafood mega-cocktailBut, last week taught me a little something it's easy to overlook; planning is only valid until it's not. This is a pretty critical concept where food and cooking are concerned. It reminded me that, no matter how prepared you think you are, the food gods can swoop in at a moment's notice and put the kibosh on the whole lot.

You may recall mention in the last blog about a plan for no-cook low-cook meals. As it had finally started to feel like summer, we, in our big ol' brick early 20th century building with no AC, prefer not living in a schvitz. Thus, when the muggy days come around, the last thing we need is an oven or stove making it even hotter. So, expecting the summer weather to hold (not a crazy assumption in late July), I put together a menu plan and merrily went out to purchase a fuckton of fresh ingredients to make all week.

We did get to enjoy what I like to call a mega-cocktail the first night. Instead of your ordinary plain shrimp in a common mix of tomatoes and such, we like to step it up a it more. It's a nice kitchen sink dish to make use of virtually any fresh veggies on hand to get a balance of flavors and textures. The base is a bit of sweet tartness from fresh and stewed tomatoes, savory from spiced roasted corn, clean crunch of cucumber, the creaminess of lots of avocado, a little aromatic kick from red onion and scallions, fresh herb from cilantro, acid from a few limes and a combination of spice from pickled jalapeños and ground dried chiles. Then shrimp are marinated in lime and dried chiles before a quick saute and popped into the mix with some squid.

repurposed chorizo and veggie ragúThen, as those of us in Los Angeles know, after one lovely summery day, we 180ed right back into soup and stew, comfort food chilliness. Not really a week for cool, light fare. So much for the best laid plans, right?

Fortunately, that's one of the easier wrenches in the works to work around. Repurposing ingredients, especially fresh veggies, is not exactly a taxing challenge, especially if you have a whole kitchen full of them and a head full of comfort food ideas. Much more difficult is working around crises like missing or gone-off ingredients, especially if recipes are necessary to the cooking process. Also a real fucking bummer is a critical process going horribly awry. Of course, for everyday at-home dinners, this is perhaps a nice excuse to experiment and take some tentative steps outside the boundaries of cooking by recipe, but what if it's not an everyday meal? Maybe it's dinner for that person you really want to impress, a special occasion family feast, dinner for the boss or an important client.

This is where reliance on recipes can be a kiss of death, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a false sense of security waiting to fuck with you.

fried okra is foodgasmically awesomeIt's not that recipes are inherently evil. They're just generally not helpful enough to developing real cooking chops, since they often leave you on your own to figure out the fundamentals. I view recipes akin to using a GPS until you know your way around the neighborhood. Once it's familiar, you can let your instinct guide you with the occasional glance at a map when the terrain is less traveled. Unfortunately, many people, I fear, trust the recipe more than their senses and tend to find themselves feeling lost an awful lot.

So, as you can imagine, this whole train of thought started to make me feel a wee-tad hypocritical about just sharing recipes I'd written while experimenting at the stove over the past week. I can't very well get my undies in a bunch about much of food culture revolving more around making recipes and less about the art of cooking, when I'm adding fuel to that recipe-following fire. The ideal, at least in my view, could be utilizing recipes as a means to strengthen fundamentals, to get more out of them than just one meal.

After over 30 years of playing with food and experimenting with a crazy range of cuisines and ingredients, so much is second nature it's fun and challenging to show Jim how to make something or walk him through the process of a dish I've developed. It makes me think about the basics behind it without the mental shorthand one gets with experience, assumptions which tend to be prevalent in most recipes.

While making some hard-boiled eggs the other day, Jim asked about the steps I go through and, here and there, asked about why. It was like a light went off over my head, especially since I've been perusing some excellent books recently with the focus on the whys behind the recipes ("Think Like a Chef" by Tom Colicchio, "The Elements of Cooking" by Michael Ruhlman, and "Live to Cook" by Michael Symon are all highly recommended). Realizing most recipes don't tell you why you do something a particular way, it seems to leave out the most important aspect of sharing recipes, to help someone learn from your experience. The straightforward list approach leaves it up to a possibly novice cook to somehow mystically know what's between the lines of the basic steps. It seems to set the inexperienced up for frustration and failure. After all, if one doesn't know the whys, should something go wrong, they'd be missing the information to determine how or where. And, if all went right, they'd still be missing the knowledge necessary to be able to use the first dish as a stepping stone to try another, then another, on their own.

I could most likely repeat phrases in another language, parrot off what I'm hearing phonetically, but it doesn't mean I'll have any greater understanding of what I've said afterward. I can also watch a cooking show, then repeat the steps as detailed in the text recipe, but it won't necessarily give me a greater understanding of preparing that dish. It's a bit like the saying about giving a man a fish.

Granted, writing a blog is a bit like talking to oneself publicly. It's easy for writing to feel more like a meditation than conversation. This week it's definitely in the meditation camp, with my thoughts revolving around how to best express the art of cooking and the wonderful part of our lives that is food.

I suppose we'll all see the result of this meditation next week.

Until then, have a great week everyone.