Monday, August 17, 2009

GUEST POST: Observations from a Novice Cook

Kris is on vacation. Today's post comes from Stan Laikowski, who sometimes writes or says funny things. He has a brand new blog here: He is always a husband and dad.

My young self had big plans for my adult self. I had always seen myself as growing into a jack-of-all-trades, without the “master of none” part. With little effort, and even less time commitment, I was to be a phenomenal drummer, clutch jump shooter, and cutting edge film director. Skate boarder. Novelist. Jet setter. The list goes on. The dusty Tama Swingstar drum set that I finally threw out a few years ago tells a different story, as does the pile of notebooks I have accumulated, each holding dozens of half-finished story sketches. To be fair, I have met with varying degrees of success. Did somebody say indie band ‘Housemother Dunbar’? No? OK. Regardless, as I get older, each year seems to be defining what I will never be.

Cooking was yet another art on my list. I saw myself as a happy-go-lucky bachelor with serious culinary chops, creating sumptuous meals while sharing a glass of merlot (wine connoisseur, another fading dream), with a lucky gal that who would melt like butter in an all-clad sauce pan as she witnessed my skills. Cut to the reality of living alone. I was the lowly apprentice of the one pot meal, if I even needed a pot. Most of my meals either came in a wrapper, or with a pint of beer. When I began dating my wife, I realized one of the many ways that I had hit the jackpot was that she enjoyed cooking, and was good at it. There was no shame in crossing cooking off my list because the base was already covered. Then came Holden.

During my wife’s pregnancy, I was warned multiple times that I would be needed in the kitchen. I immediately agreed because you don’t argue with a woman who has spent 9 months hauling around your progeny, but I didn’t really consider what I was getting into. In fact, part of me didn’t expect to really have to cash in on my promise. However, a simple math equation began to present itself. A- We need to eat every day, and B- my wife was exhausted with our newborn. If I wanted to get to C- a full belly, I needed to don an apron, which I did with some trepidation. I then discovered something thrilling. I liked cooking. Following are a few observations I have made on my path from extreme novice to, well, less extreme novice.

Cooking, like the game Othello, takes a moment to learn, and a lifetime to master. I can replicate my wife’s simpler meals now. One of the more popular is asparagus pasta. This involves the most basic of ingredients (asparagus, oil, parmesan, bowtie pasta, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper). When I make it, it tastes good, but it does not taste quite the same as when my wife makes it. I have come to learn that a lot of cooking is in the nuance, and nothing but time and experimentation is going to teach me that. I have begun taking the first steps towards adding my signature to meals, but there are only so many times you can add a ton of garlic to a dish.

Cooking is meditative. The one meal that is wholly mine in the household comes from the Cook’s Illustrated Best 30-Minute Recipe book. I chose the Italian Sausage with Peppers, Onions, and Potatoes recipe. Upon making the meal for the first time, I presented it to my wife a full hour and fifteen minutes past the 30-minute mark. I was shocked so much time had passed. Where had it gone? I was lost in making the food, and I notice that time stops for me whenever I cook. I have since gotten the meal down to about 50 minutes due to an increase in efficiency, but am miles away from completing that meal in the allotted 30 minutes.

Food is beautiful. The peppers in the meal (see photo) are as appealing to me as a sunset. The mixture of color and texture between foods on a plate is fascinating. Once I have the basics down, I very much look forward to exploring the presentational aspect of a meal.

There is a very unique satisfaction to making a meal people enjoy. I have probably made the sausage pepper dish about 10 times, and every time I find myself peeking out of the corner of my eye at my wife’s first bite. Additionally, I find myself critiquing my own first few bites more and more, and deciding where I can improve for next time. Usually, that answer is to lower the heat. I tend to cook with too hot a flame.

It is fun to cut things with a really sharp knife.
This one is pretty self-explanatory.

Among the joy, laughter and pride that Holden brings, it looks like I have another thing for which to thank him. His birth set off an inadvertent chain reaction that resurrected one of my dreams, and it looks like I just might complete this one. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a ukulele to buy.

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