By practice, by trail and error, by thinking about what works and what doesn’t, we come to wisdom. This applies to any endeavor. Over the years–through this process of reflection on the cooking process– I’ve come to understand that essential to preparing a great meal is the right frame of mind, first, and, second, having a solid method. This is what is offered in this post: something of the “Tao of Cooking” and a way of going about it. By adopting the right philosophy and by arming yourself with a good method the cooking process becomes more, well, edifying. As a result, you’ll magically get better results in the finished product.
The Philosophy: A “Tao of Cooking”
One of my greatest joys in life, as of late, is learning how to submit to Reality: things as they really are. It takes, of course, a dose of humility not to try to impose our will on the universe (does the attempt to do so ever go well, by the way?). One of the ways that we, our lives being so full, almost always try to impose our wills on the universe is by trying to impose our wills on unbend-able Time. How do we know we’re attempting this impossible feat? We rush things: we try to make things take less time than they do. Sorry: doesn’t work!
It’s true: some things are not as they ought to be (these things ought to change), but some things–like gravity, a thunderstorm, or time–are realities to which we humbly submit (though these realities may be harnessed or leveraged to our advantage). Paradoxically, there’s a freedom and creativity to be found in the constraint. With no disrespect to Rachel Ray and contra 30 Minute Meals, probably my favorite series of cookbooks, cooking simply takes time (I’ve yet to make a recipe from that series that takes a half an hour, and I suspect a large number of you will agree with me). Coming to grips with the fact that you’re just not that likely to be sitting down to a meal of pasta with lamb meatballs over cous cous in a half an hour, the pressure comes off a bit. You begin to relax. While it’s fine to work quickly and efficiently (efficiency: the good use of a finite resource), don’t rush it. Rushing can (and often does) lead to second-guessing, stress, frustration, and a less than desirable product.
As a sidebar there are, thankfully, things we can do that help our minds adopt this approach as we engage in the act of cooking. I’d include in the list the opening of a bottle of wine or beer and pouring yourself a glass; sipping on ice tea or lemonade; or putting on some music (or all three).
To summarize, allow yourself to come to accept the bounds of time and give yourself enough of it when preparing and cooking a meal. The cooking method described next presupposes this foundational philosophy: it builds on the principle that we are creatures bounded by the temporal but it’s how we use that time that yields superior results.
Step One. If working with a recipe, begin by actively reading the entire recipe (sometimes I do this out loud), including all the ingredients and steps of the cooking process. What does this look like? As you read, visualize the ingredients and each step that you will take in the cooking process. Again, don’t rush this. Take your time. It’s the whole “measure twice, cut once” principle applied to the art of cooking. This preparatory step gives you the big picture. It develops confidence and counteracts that tendency to rush. And, if time is of the essence, it also allows you to work more quickly in the actual preparation of the meal. This “read through” is something I sometimes do the day before the meal, and it’s usually something that I repeat just prior to the actual preparation of the recipe.
Step Two. Get all the ingredients out and on your counter space that will be used for the recipe. Take out, as well, the measuring devices, bowls, cookware, etc. that will come into play.
Step Three. Cut, chop, dice, julienne, and measure out all of the ingredients, placing them in bowls or other containers. In cooking shows, this is usually always done off-camera, prior to the shoot, giving the illusion that a meal quickly comes together. This really is the longest step. It’s the equivalent of all the preparatory work that goes into painting a room: all the laying down of plastic, all the taping around windows and window sills. This is an exercise in patience, especially when you want to be about the business of cooking a fantastic meal. Quality restaurants can spend the better part of a day, prior to the restaurant’s opening, engaged in this kind of detail-oriented work. How to more fully enjoy it? Again, I usually have a beer or glass of wine in hand, stealing a sip now and then as a reward for completing one of the preparatory steps (diced the onions [sip]; minced the rosemary [sip]; peeled a potato [sip, sip]). Or else, I nibble on some of the ingredients: a black olive here or a piece of prosciutto there.
Step Four. This is the really good step. Pretend your on the set of the Food Network and the tape is rolling, and you’re the star of your cooking show. Again, if you’re using a recipe, you’re following its “script” of what to do with all your prepared, measured ingredients. This step four is the only step you usually see on network television, but you now know that it’s just the “tip of the iceberg,” and–for me–it’s the funnest part. It’s part where everything comes together and the sounds and smells of cooking fill the house, smells which invite those who will be enjoying the meal to anticipate something great.
An now, an invitation: an invitation to readers to share their collective wisdom regarding their philosophies of cooking along with their methodologies.