Month: July 2014

Cooking phases.

When I first started really cooking, I threw things together. Lentils, salt, crock pot, thyme. Then I started following recipes. And eating, lots of eating of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise eaten. Nothing truly daring, but new foods. Indian buffets were my daring indulgence. I lived in a vegetarian co-op and cooked green pea soup without sour cream or bacon.

Then I started breaking out of recipes and cooking without recipes. Not baking, just cooking. This was a combination of wanting to recreate things I’d eaten, memorizing recipes and not needing them in front of me, and little touches of understanding. And when I followed recipes it was in making things that I’d eaten a lot of, but never made before. Mayonnaise, salad dressing, pesto.

Then I started researching, trying to find out why I couldn’t cook certain things. Beans. I kept trying to make things with dried beans and it wasn’t working. I think that was the trigger, one of the main triggers on that phase. I wanted to make homemade pork’n’beans. Is it so much to ask for? Apparently.  I still don’t have it down.  And how do you meet the challenge of cooking vegan? Cooking gluten free? These were the kinds of questions I cooked to answer.

Then, over the last year or two, I drifted out of cooking. Even as I ate more widely and daringly, I hated the effort involved in keeping people fed. The obligation of it. Lee kept telling me, “You don’t have to cook if you don’t want to.” And nothing fell apart without me. My daughter learned to do more for herself, Lee started cooking more. We ate less complicated, less “cooked” things. Bowls of cereal, yes, but also more grilling, more salads, more rice cooker rice with leftovers on top. I was done, I was dried out, I was bored with everything and didn’t know where to go to find something new. My cooking wasn’t perfected, not even close, but even so the quality of my cooking went downhill as my soul went out of it. Boiling eggs was too much work, making breakfast. I used to make a batch of granola every week, but I stopped. It just dried out of me. I had a few things I wanted to make. Green chili. But mostly the drive faded.

Today I’ve been thinking about that.

I started getting more into cooking because it helps balance me out. I’m in my head so much that I need to be dragged out from time to time. I like to eat. I like the sensuousness of smelling fresh-chopped garlic. I like surprise of the perfect cherry. I like listening to the bubbles pop as I knead bread, the hiss of onions in the pan.  Being able to taste when wine needs air.  I struggle to get out of my own head; cooking used to be my line to shore.

Today I made garlic potatoes, trying a new technique. It’s too hot in the house to roast the damn things. If you’re going to fry potatoes, for example the perfect french fries, you’re supposed to fry them first at a lower temperature to cook the insides, then crank up the heat, drain them, and fry them again so they get the perfect, glasslike crust. While the sausages were grilling, I nuked the cubed potatoes with some garlic and some salt to cook the insides. And then I pan-fried them over higher heat in olive oil, finished them with salt and grated Irish cheddar.  Not perfect.  Also: next time I’ll add the garlic later, it got too brown.

A couple of times I tried to escape from the moment: get back into my head and stop caring about what was actually going on. If the theory was good, the potatoes would be good. But that’s not how cooking works. Every time, the potatoes are different. And so theory is nice, but theory will always come up short.

This is where I’m going. Maybe not now, maybe not soon. But learning to stay with the ingredients, with the heat, with the timing.  Maybe I’ll cook more, maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll make a thousand batches of potatoes, one after the other, until I go insane.

Unwanted Story

Another exercise thingy:

 

Two stories tall, narrow, Victorian-style, hardwood floors now sprinkled with antique rugs, two and a half baths with good plumbing under them; a cellar whose shelves groaned out for jars of jam and carbuoys of beer; robin’s-egg blue walls in good condition and an air conditioning unit fit to freeze Hell over with: the house on Mulberry Street was perfect for a children’s writer with ice-blue eyes and dark brown hair and a new husband named Tim.  There was even a nursery already decorated with white wainscotting and blue wallpaper splattered with Beatrix Potter characters–although honestly, she intended to take the paper down and replace it with something from The Hobbit long before she got knocked up.

Most mornings, she sent her husband off to his job with a kiss and climbed back up the stairs, pulling on the wooden banister so she could take the steps two or three at a time, she was so eager to get back to work.  But lately she’d been brewing herself a cup of too-strong Earl Gray tea in their shiny new microwave, drinking it while sitting in the breakfast nook of their narrow but otherwise charming steel-and-oak kitchen, staring out the windows onto the heavy, humid greenery in the back yard, and wishing she hadn’t signed the contract.  There were so many other stories that wanted to be written, and the dark, watchful spaces between the lilac leaves weren’t helping.

She sat and drank cups of tea until the cats sent for her, tangling around her ankles and sticking their heads in her cup–and then she went upstairs.  There was no arguing with cats.  So she climbed the stairs, more slowly now, the eyes of the cats pressing on her back, and opened the crystal-knobbed door to her office.

Tim had painted it for her.   Deep, cloudless blue, with a white ceiling that lit up with at least a thousand stars at night.  The window curtan was a shimmering, translucent purple stitched with gold thread. A negligee of a curtain.  The only lights came from a pair of antique stained-glass lamps on either end of her glass-and-steel desk.  And her monitor.

The a/c clicked on.   Chris slid into her office chair, dropped the heavy quilt over her blue jeans, put her toes over the vent, then leaned over and booted up her computer.  Magoo, sleek and black, and tabby Tuna clawed up onto her lap, one head in either direction.  Shasta hogged the back of the small futon like it was her hoard; the gray-and-black tiger-striped Things packed themselves into the space between the monitor and the lamp like sardines.  The lamp wobbled.  Chris picked it up and set it on her printer on top of the tan filing cabinet.

The cats always knew when she was having trouble writing.  She’d never been able to tell whether they meant to comfort her or if they were just pleased by the smell of frustrated tears.

Rubbing the creases across her forehead, Chris started to open the file, then stopped.  She hated this story.  Just hated it.  Yet every morning when she woke up, she knew what to do next with it.  It was just that predictable.  She wanted the story to fail.  She wanted to keep her name off it.  She wanted to call her editor and say, “This just isn’t my kind of thing,” take the advance out of savings, and break the contract.

And she would have.  If the pages hadn’t been writing themselves.

Cherry Season

Part of a writing exercise thingy:

 

You hate food balloons.  Anything with a tough skin over a mushy middle.  Peaches are okay.  The skin isn’t thick enough to conceal rot.  You know where you are with a peach.  But grapes, most grapes are horrible.  You can’t just pop a grape into your mouth.  That’s just disgusting:  until it’s too late, you can’t tell whether the grape’s going to be rotten or not.  There’s a thin blade between optimal grape eating time, and rotten grape time, and you can’t always tell with your fingers when it is.   You don’t eat the mushy ones, of course.  But grapes rot from the stem out, so sometimes they still feel firm when really they’re falling apart.  Pop one straight into your mouth, and you get a mouth of rotting sweetness that makes you gag.  No matter how carefully you feel for dry stems or search for a wet brown ring around them, you’re going to end up eating a couple of rotten grapes in every bunch.  So you avoid grapes.  The risk is too much, the reward too little.

Cherry tomatoes are pretty touchy, too.   But you like tomatoes more, so you risk it: you cut them in half first, of course, and check the yellow seeds and the white flesh and the watery, pale insides and think about how it’s too bad that most tomatoes aren’t allowed to get really ripe.  But of course that’s a risk, too.  It’s one thing to say you’re serving tomatoes, and it’s another to serve the perfect tomato, and you get most of the reward, as a restauranteur, from just saying you’re serving tomatoes and not actually serving good ones.   Serving good tomatoes is too high a risk that a customer’s going to bite into rot.  You can lose your shirt chasing the perfect tomato.

But then there are cherries.

You don’t buy cherries when they’re expensive.  There just isn’t any point.  When they’re cheap you buy a lot of them.  The first few batches are too sour.  Underripe.   You bite down on them with your upper teeth at the edge of the stem so that your incisors sheer down the side of the pit.   Cherry pit poison scrapes onto your teeth and you like it.  You bite off half the cherry, eat it, then use your teeth to bite the pit out of the other half.  There’s juice on your fingers, it’s staining under your fingernails.  With the really ripe ones you find stray dots of juice like blood spatter at a crime scene.  Then, like a magic trick, you spit out the pit at the same time you eat the other half of the cherry.  A switcheroo.   And toss the pit away into the trash while you swallow.

Cherries rot from the inside out.  At least, the ones you trick yoursel into eating. The rot that lies along the pit tastes dry and tannic, like mummy flesh, and you can fool yourself into eating two or three before you have to stop, because your body is in revulsion of your betrayal.  Poison.   You’re eating poison, you know.  If you don’t stop this instant I will vomit this back up, I don’t care that you’d need to eat a ton of these in order to be in actual danger, young lady, I’ve had enough of this…

Then you retch.

And that’s the end of the cherry season, and you’re back to hating all food balloons, everywhere, except the ones like ikura eggs that go crunch between your teeth.  Even orange slices are iffy sometimes.  But that glorious cherry season.  Every year.  You push it as far as you can go.  To the point of feeling the rotten cherry slide back up your throat.

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