“Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn't been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour.”
― Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
“The repetitive phases of cooking leave plenty of mental space for reflection, and as I chopped and minced and sliced I thought about the rhythms of cooking, one of which involves destroying the order of the things we bring from nature into our kitchens, only to then create from them a new order. We butcher, grind, chop, grate, mince, and liquefy raw ingredients, breaking down formerly living things so that we might recombine them in new, more cultivated forms. When you think about it, this is the same rhythm, once removed, that governs all eating in nature, which invariably entails the destruction of certain living things, by chewing and then digestion, in order to sustain other living things. In The Hungry Soul Leon Kass calls this the great paradox of eating: 'that to preserve their life and form living things necessarily destroy life and form.' If there is any shame in that destruction, only we humans seem to feel it, and then only on occasion. But cooking doesn't only distance us from our destructiveness, turning the pile of blood and guts into a savory salami, it also symbolically redeems it, making good our karmic debts: Look what good, what beauty, can come of this! Putting a great dish on the table is our way of celebrating the wonders of form we humans can create from this matter--this quantity of sacrificed life--just before the body takes its first destructive bite.”
― Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
"Let's cook," Frannie said energetically. "We will smell so good that they'll all come running." She picked up a bowl, filled it with apples from the barrel, and immediately began to cut them up. I put water to boil, got out cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, lard, flour, sugar, salt, saleratus, vinegar, and all the other things for apple pies. We both laughed happily. How easy it is, we thought, to make a decision, to implement a remedy, to act.”
― Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer
This week was the conclusion of a 6-week cooking class I took at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I wanted to approach this with a beginner's mind so I discovered a great deal, not only about cooking but about learning and myself.
What did I learn, in my adventure into cooking and beginner's mind? A few things, all of which can be taken literally or metaphorically.
Sharp knives matter. Cutting with a dull knife takes longer, requires more effort and you're much more likely to hurt yourself. Make sure your knife is honed as well as sharpened even if you have to expend a little bit of energy to make it so.
Use the knife that fits your hand. No matter how big, flashy or expensive, if you can't use it comfortably you won't use it well.
When in doubt, add a little more butter. Okay, this may not apply to everything, but almost everything. A little bit of richness in the mouth or in our lives isn't necessarily a bad thing. Even if you have cholesterol problems.
Don't be afraid to cook with strangers. I was nervous about taking this class with a bunch of people I'd not met. What if we didn't like each other? What if they didn't like me? It turns out, we all played really well together. And that leads to
Be willing to make mistakes. Most things can be fixed or started over. I took this class so I could make mistakes and learn solutions. If you break the mayonnaise, you can probably fix it. If you burn the steak, the world will not end.
Follow the recipe on occasion. Most of my adult cooking life has not revolved around recipes, for all that I have a thing for cookbooks. This class reminded me that it's not a bad idea to follow the tried and true sometimes, learning from other's experience can be delicious and only adds to my own expertise.
My favorite place to dance is the kitchen. I've always loved to dance with my sweetie in the kitchen. And I usually have the radio on when I'm cooking, so I'm often wiggling some extraneous part of my body. But during this class, there were 14 or so people moving around the kitchen all the time. We had to dance with each other in new ways, much the way we have to dance through every day, moving and yielding, holding still, letting others know when there might be a hazard in their path.
You can cook anywhere, but professional kitchens are amazing. I've cooked over fires, hotplates, in sinks, on rocks and in many apartment kitchens with dysfunctional stoves. I've made good meals in all of those places. I have to say, cooking in a professional kitchen, with that astonishing stove and those wonderful tools, was eye opening. It's nice to do a job in a place well built for it.
Ingredients matter. We used good basic ingredients in this class. I'm certain that made our finished dishes taste better. What you start with makes a difference in the end.
Cook and eat joyfully. Really, is there anything else for me to say?
I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.
As some of you know, I'm taking a class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I'm enjoying it tremendously; the instructor is skilled and welcoming, the other students are fun to learn with. In all honesty we've not done much that I'm not familiar with, however the class is helping me learn better general technique and reminding me of the joy of cooking to recipes. All of this is useful and working in a professional kitchen is a kick.
Last week we focused on wet cooking - stews and braises. Each class we're given a recipe packet and teams of students work on each recipe. I made a pork and squash stew, which was wonderful and redolent with cumin, but by far, my favorite dish was the braised beef short rib with dried cherries. It was so delicious that I cooked it this past weekend for friends.
The best word I can think of for this dish is unctuous. The sweetness of the cherries, the mouth-feel of the soft meat, the depth of the wine... all of it together was extraordinary. This is now my new go-to dish for special guests.
This recipe is adapted from the one provided by the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
Preheat the oven to 325f.
Season about 5lbs of beef short ribs (for me this was six pieces) with salt and pepper, then dredge in 1/4c of flour, shaking off the excess. Sear them on all sides in 1/4c olive oil, heated in a large oven-proof casserole on the stove on medium-high heat. Remove the meat once it's seared on all sides and pout out the excess oil, the deglaze the pan over high heat with 1-1/2c red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon or Rhone). Make sure you get up all the little seared bits. Reduce the wine to 3/4c.
Whisk in a quart of chicken stock (I used homemade chicken/duck stock, yum). Once it's smooth, return the seared ribs to the pot along with any oozed liquid. Tuck a piece of parchment paper into the pot, so it's snug against the meat and liquid (this helps the meat cook in moist heat throughout), bring to a simmer, put the lid on and slide it into the oven. Cook for 90 minutes.
Read, watch a movie, play a game with your friends, take a nap. The house will soon smell wonderful.
Remove the lid and parchment paper, add 1-1/2teas. salt, 8 peeled garlic cloves and 8 peeled shallots, more or less. Cover with the paper and lid, cook for another hour.
Remove the lid and paper, add 1-1/4c (I probably added more) dried sour cherries, set the lid at an angle, and simmer until the ribs are falling off the bone tender and the cherries are plumped.
Remove the ribs, cherries, shallots and garlic to a deep and wide serving dish. Cover to keep warm. The recipe says to strain the liquid, but I didn't. Let it sit for a little while, then carefully spoon off the floating fat. Simmer the de-fatted sauce for five minutes or so, then taste, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed, pour the sauce over the meat and veggies.
'If you are careful,' Garp wrote, 'if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.'
When I first heard about this class I had some initial resistance. "Do I really need to spend that much time on basic skills? Am I not already a decent cook?" What I was really experiencing was resistance, that insidious force that keeps us from doing the things we most love. What I was really thinking was, "Am I good enough? Will I be the worst one in the class? What if I screw it all up and make a fool of myself?" Kevin cut through all of my questions and just gave me the course as a gift. "You love cooking," he said. "You're already a good cook. Go learn some more."
The first class was this past Monday. We focused on knife skills. The instructor, Dave Ramsey, was relaxed and informative, clearly enjoying the class and the opportunity to share his knowledge. Fourteen students with varying degrees of proficiency were guided through the different kinds of knives a cook needs, how to care for them, safety and more. Then we cut. We cut onions. We cut carrots. We cut celery and mushrooms and zucchini. We made garlic paste. We minced chives and parsley. Only one person in the class had prior experience and he, quite gracefully, helped out as needed with no condescension. The rest of us concentrated on curling our fingers into claws, holding the knife correctly and not losing any digits.
It was fun. And I learned better technique that I had previously been using. Maybe more importantly, I got over the hump, got past the voices telling me I'd be the oldest/dumbest/least skilled/etc. I was simply another student, learning more about something I love.
Next week? Eggs. I expect to have more to say about recipes, cooking and the fine art of getting over resistance. Stay tuned.
I was in the market today and came across a little container of peeled garlic for 78 cents. Now, I use a lot of garlic in my kitchen. I keep a garlic jar, purchased in Italy and made for this purpose, full of the papery bulbs. I enjoy breaking them apart and peeling each clove, seeing its imperfections and individual shape. I even enjoy the stickiness the comes to my fingers when I've peeled enough cloves that I know the scent won't go away with a quick wash at the sink. I like keeping the whole bulbs handy because they last longer. They don't lose their sting. Because I can touch each clove as I prepare a meal.
But this little container was alluring, the ivory cloves looking up at me. What would I do with 35 or so peeled cloves of garlic all at once? I didn't want to roast a 40 clove chicken tonight... Ah. Roasted garlic, so simple and with such benefit. I scooped up the container and spent my 78 cents. I had a plan.
Once home I pre-heated the oven to 350, poured the garlic cloves into an oven-proof bowl, lavished them with olive oil, salt and pepper, covered and let them roast. I all but forgot about them. It was maybe 30 minutes later that I peeked and poked. Pale gold and soft under my spoon with a darker brown crust, they were done. I let them cool, then poured them and the fragrant oil into a jar to wait for later use. And yes, I ate one or two (alright, three or four) while they were warm.
Oh, they were good. Soft and melting, the sharpness of the cloves mellowed into sweetness. The oil coated my mouth and my tongue, my senses whirling with delight.
What will I do with them? Smear them on sandwiches. Add them to salads. Use them in recipes where I want the mellow sweetness. Make them into jam. Crush them into mayonnaise. I'll use the oil on salad or bread, cook potatoes in it or use it in a marinade. On and on. And next time I see that little container slyly asking me to take it home, I will. Roasted garlic is so easy to make and doesn't last long in my home. Try it. It won't last long in yours either.
Twelve people, most of us strangers, stand in a room in Ann Arbor, drinking Cribari from jars. Then two young men, who cooked him, carry him to the table on a large square of plywood: his body striped, like a tiger cat’s, from the basting, his legs long, much longer than a cat’s, and the striped hide as shiny as vinyl.
Now I see his head, as he takes his place at the center of the table, his wide pig’s head; and he looks like the javelina that ran in front of the car, in the desert outside Tucson, and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig, with his large ears cocked forward, with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth in a jaw propped open by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes, his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.
This afternoon they read directions from a book: The eyeballs must be removed or they will burst during roasting. So they hacked them out. "I nearly fainted," says someone. "I never fainted before, in my whole life." Then they gutted the pig and stuffed him, and roasted him five hours, basting the long body.
* * *
Now we examine him, exclaiming, and we marvel at him— but no one picks up a knife.
Then a young woman cuts off his head. It comes off so easily, like a detachable part. With sudden enthusiasm we dismantle the pig, we wrench his trotters off, we twist them at shoulder and hip, and they come off so easily. Then we cut open his belly and pull the skin back.
For myself, I scoop a portion of left thigh, moist, tender, falling apart, fat, sweet. We forage like an army starving in winter that crosses a pass in the hills and discovers a valley of full barns— cattle fat and lowing in their stalls, bins of potatoes in root cellars under white farmhouses. barrels of cider, onions, hens squawking over eggs— and the people nowhere, with bread still warm in the oven.
Maybe, south of the valley, refugees pull their carts listening for Stukas or elephants, carrying bedding, pans, and silk dresses, old men and women, children, deserters, young wives.
No, we are here, eating the pig together.
* * *
In ten minutes, the destruction is total.
His tiny ribs, delicate as birds’ feet, lie crisscrossed. Or they are like crosshatching in a drawing, lines doubling and redoubling on each other.
Bits of fat and muscle mix with stuffing alien to the body, walnuts and plums. His skin, like a parchment bag soaked in oil, is pulled back and flattened, with ridges and humps remaining, like a contour map, like the map of a defeated country.
The army consumes every blade of grass in the valley, every tree, every stream, every village, every crossroad, every shack, every book, every graveyard.
His intact head swivels around, to view the landscape of body as if in dismay.
"For sixteen weeks I lived. For sixteen weeks I took into myself nothing but the milk of my mother who rolled on her side for me, for my brothers and sisters. Only five hours roasting, and this body so quickly dwindles away to nothing."
* * *
By itself, isolated on this plywood, among this puzzle of foregone possibilities, his intact head seems to want affection. Without knowing that I will do it, I reach out and scratch his jaw, and I stroke him behind his ears, as if he might suddenly purr from his cooked head.
"When I stroke your pig’s ears, and scratch the striped leather of your jowls, the furrow between the sockets of your eyes, I take into myself, and digest, wheat that grew between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.
"And I take into myself the flint carving tool, and the savannah, and hairs in the tail of Eohippus, and fingers of bamboo, and Hannibal’s elephant, and Hannibal, and everything that lived before us, everything born, exalted, and dead, and historians who carved in the Old Kingdom when the wall had not heard about China."
I speak these words into the ear of the Stone Age pig, the Abraham pig, the ocean pig, the Achilles pig, and into the ears of the fire pig that will eat our bodies up.
"Fire, brother and father, twelve of us, in our different skins, older and younger, opened your skin together and tore your body apart, and took it into our bodies."