Saturday, November 22, 2014

What Kind of Cook Are You?

So I was preparing some pork chops for the Crock Pot this morning and found myself grabbing spices and herbs, along with some other magic potions to go on the chops as they browned.    I was sort of mindlessly flinging things in the skillet when it occurred to me that I was acting with reckless abandon, not unlike a Mad Scientist in his laboratory.  (Pronounced like a good British Mad Scientist would say it:   La-BORE-A-tory)  I almost laughed out loud at the thought that my cooking qualified me as a Mad Scientist.   But I guess in a way it's true.

As we're concocting things in our kitchens, we are either following closely along with Betty Crocker (or another of our cookbook gurus) as our guide and mentor or we go off on our own path, pulling things from our pantries, refrigerators and our vast repertoire of experiences in the  culinary arts.    I find that most of the time I am in the second category and mainly use recipes as inspiration more than a rigid game plan to follow.    I know, I know --- that can be dangerous, especially in the baking game.    If you don't get those proportions and levels exactly like the "formula" calls for them to be, you can end up with a pretty dreadful confection that fails to rise like it should or is flat and tasteless!!    So I don't often go off on my own tangent for baking.   However, I have been known to make Banana Bread with nary a look at a recipe, just relying heavily on memory and what I knew had to go in to make it good.    And frankly, most of the time, it has worked out.   

Most of the people I know give credit (or blame) for their cooking skills to a significant person in their life.    Maybe it was their Mom or a Grandmother who took the time to let them sidle up by them while they were cooking to observe or even help out.    I remember taking an interest in cooking when I was a pre-teen and then in my teenage years.   My sister, Ginny, and I would make platters of homemade fudge, mashed potatoes or a steaming pot of grits to eat while we watched movies.    My Mom was a pretty good cook, too, and we watched and observed what she did in the kitchen.    

My recollection is that my older sister, Charlotte, was a good cook who pretty much taught herself how to cook.   She used cook books and made a lot of what we call "comfort food" today.    Her Sunday Pot Roast with mashed potatoes and green beans were standard fare at her house.    Fried chicken with rice and gravy showed up on the table regularly, too.   It was almost always good, filling and tasty.     

Some people I know have told me that their Moms never (and I do mean NEVER) allowed them in the kitchen.    I am not sure why, but their experience in the kitchen was extremely limited growing up and so what they learned came from their own curiosity and interest in learning the skill.    I do believe those early experiences in the kitchen do more or less set the tone for what kind of adventures you'll have in the kitchen.   If you start learning early in your life how to hold a knife or what herbs and spices can do for your food, I think you tend to be more adventurous and willing to spend a lot of time in the kitchen honing those skills.     If you are discouraged from  having those experiences when you're young, it may lead you in the opposite direction so that cooking is not high on your priorities.   

I have to say that watching many of the cooking shows on The Food Network has filled in a lot of gaps for me.    What I didn't learn from my mother or observed in other cooks or read in a cookbook, I found out by watching Chopped or Iron Chef.      The interesting thing about Chopped is that the contestants are compelled to improvise with the odd set of ingredients that they are required to use in order to win.    So they may be given some really oddball ingredients that seemingly have no relation to each other than a frog does to a horse.    And yet, they are expected to utilize each of the items and come up with a cohesive, tasty dish.    

What I have learned is that you have to think of items in terms of what flavor (or texture) it imparts.    So if you are given some kind of cracker or cookie, you might end up grinding it up and using it to bread a pork chop.    It sounds off the wall but sometimes a small compensation such as adding in another spice or herb will offset the sweetness and it all works out fine.   You have to stretch your imagination to figure out how to use what you're given.     

I have seen chefs melt the chocolate off of a chocolate candy and chop up the peanut inside to sprinkle over the top of a dish.   Sometimes, the chef will have to understand the properties of an ingredient and what it will do once it is combined with another.     It takes courage, knowledge, some experience and yes, a bit of the Mad Scientist to figure out how to use the ingredients and end up with a good dish and not a royal mess.     

One other thought on this subject is that I am always looking for recipes to try.    I look mainly on Pinterest but I still like looking in cook books, even after years of looking at them.     I have many in my collection and inherited a few from my Mom.    What I have realized about myself is that often when I am in the midst of cooking (even by a recipe) is that it will strike me that the dish would taste better if I added something or substituted another ingredient for the one the recipe calls for.    I have no qualms about doing that and make no criticism of the original recipe.    Some people find a recipe on line, completely revamp it, putting things in that weren't called for or substituting with wild abandon and then go back to the site and slam the recipe, especially if it does not turn out right.    I do not do that and honestly, get annoyed with those who do.    If you totally change the recipe, you didn't cook the dish you thought you did!    But as I said, I am completely comfortable with making additions or substitutions as the mood strikes me.   And I take blame OR credit for the way the dish turns out.   

Anyhow, just out of curiosity, how do you think of yourself, dear reader?    Are you a recipe follower, and not prone to deviate from the proscribed way to make the dish?    Or are you more in the Mad Scientist category using recipes as just a jumping off point or coming up with ideas on your own or from things you see at the grocery store?     Then again, maybe you're like some people I know who prefer to "make reservations" for dinner!    Do tell.    Which kind are you?    

Happy Trails and Happy Thanksgiving!