Thursday, February 3, 2011

Haphazard Cooking Art

A few folks have asked for recipes of things that I mention in my blogs. I know that every Pioneer-y woman out there is all over posting recipes on their sites. Me, not so much. I have a really hard time reading recipes. I’ve never been one to learn through the written word. I seem to be so error prone when attempting to pay attention to instructions that I’ve had to learn the wing-it way just to save face. It’s a fault really, one I get a lot of flack for and am the endless butt of jokes but I y’am what I y’am. I learned to cook very young as well, so I think I approach cooking as a child would.

Living on a farm o’ plenty, it also behooves a girl to cook from what is available. It took me a while to figure this out. There were baked beans in the summer and green salads in the winter before I realized that there were seasons for every dish. I’ve tried cooking from seasonal cookbooks that lay out what is in season and what dishes could be constructed from those things. Very smart but still no bites from my inspiration centre (no pun intended).

Though I won’t be able to post a list of recipes, I will share a list of rules I use to support a habit of home-cooking regularly, without too much extra work. If the kitchen is your palette, food is your paint, then a meal becomes your art. I swear that over half the meals I make end up entirely different than what I originally intended. Tonight’s homemade pizza ended up as fajitas, for example, halfway through the show. And so it goes.

Now I don’t actually suggest you follow any of these rules. But you may take them as an apology when you ask me how I do something and I can’t quite explain it properly.

Here are my Rules for Cooking:

1. Use up what needs to be used first. Do you have sour cream with tomorrow’s date on it? Did you thaw a steak a couple of days ago and it has to be eaten now? Did your neighbour drop off some corn that is at its peak today?

2. Follow a recipe for ideas, but never really make it past the first half before you go off and do something entirely different that may be loosely based on one ingredient at least.

3. Stock up on everything and anything that you might need so that you have all ingredients available at all times. That means coconut, canned pineapple, celery, olives, icing sugar, sour cream etc… Have a freezer for leftovers and extra ingredients.

4. Do as much preparation in advance as possible so that when it is time to assemble the meal, it is a true joy to reach for everything like they do on those cooking shows and just throw it all together while singing ‘tra la la’. I don’t know about you, but I am at my grumpiest and least patient at 5pm. It helps to give your 5 o’clock self a hand earlier in the day or week if you can.

5. Make more than you need, always, because you never know when an army might show up. When the army doesn’t show, then freeze the grated cheese, the sautéed onions, the roasted peppers, extra meatballs or cubes of chicken so you have them handy for the next time you decide to build a meal around one of these things.

6. Practise winging it by looking at pictures of dishes and imagining what might be in them. When you are in a restaurant, go over in your head how you would prepare such a thing from the order that you add things to the temperature you would set the oven at. Ask lots of questions about how other people do things.

7. Here is the most important one for me: use what you have. Don’t reach for dishes that don’t include what is in your fridge or what you can get from your neighbour or local farmers market or on sale or in season at the grocery store. Build around what is ripe in the fields. Don’t soak dry beans in July when the fresh green beans are dropping off the vines.

8. Use the internet or ask anyone who knows to find out how to do things the good old fashioned way. You might be daunted by rendering lard, smoking meat, dehydrating fruit, making yogurt but you know, truth is, if it was done a hundred years ago, it’s likely a pretty simple and basic thing. We just get ourselves all confused by imagining complicated ways of doing things.

9. Exchange all processed foods with the real deal. Where someone may regale you with the latest and greatest Cream of Mushroom Soup surprise, know that you can add flour to a jar of milk, shake it up, pop it in the microwave for a minute and have the same kind of white sauce, thickener stuff without all the salt and scary list of ingredients. Where tomato paste or ketchup is called for, put a cup of stewed tomatoes from the freezer into the blender with a handful of ground dehydrated grape tomatoes to thicken it. Make bread crumbs in your food processor with stale bread cubes and freeze them for the next time you need them.

10. Make good use of the blender or a second coffee grinder. Add ground pumpkin seeds to pancakes, grind your own cinnamon sticks and nutmeg pods (there is no comparison!), put spinach in a blender with eggs before you scramble them a la Dr. Seuss or add bananas to crepe batter. You get the idear.

Now I promise not to be shy and that I will share any recipes of interest, or at least what I think it is I did to get the result I got but I can’t promise anything. I tend to do things differently every time and my memory ain’t so good anymore.

In the same way a painter does not start out with instructions on which colours to choose and where to put them on the canvas, it doesn’t always have to be the way for you to begin a meal with a plan ahead. Try it sometime and see. Let your hands start chopping and sautéeing and see what you come up with. Set up your kitchen so that it is conducive to this kind of folly. Have your ingredients handy and give yourself time and space to create.

For me, the kitchen is the best place in the world to do art. Because no matter what you do, you gotta eat, and nobody questions the importance of making a meal. Don’t be discouraged if you try this and things don’t work out. You’ve got another meal right around the corner where you get to try again.

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