Tuesday, April 14, 2009

And you call yourself a cook?

The way a meal turns out is inevitably going to vary. Unless you're absolutely fanatical about measuring and duplicating each time you cook something, it's never going to be exactly the same twice.  Even the most tried and true recipes will never be the same, twice in a row. Restaurants strive to maintain their dishes and never offer any surprises, unless they're billed as such ("specials"). 

I do a lot of cooking ... every day, for the past 20 years. I can cook just about anything, I suppose. And I can certainly follow a recipe, but more commonly will look at recipes as "suggestions," and put my own spin on them. Most cooks do this. It's called creativity. And most things turn out somewhere between good and very good, I hear. No complaints from the guests or Mrs., and I'm commonly my own biggest critic.

I write extensively (some would say "ad nauseum") about the lavish meals I put on for family and friends. Last Saturday's brunch was a huge success (in spite of a very poor waffle maker which is going to be returned to the place of purchase), and Sunday night's dinner for Sis and Bro-In-Law, likewise. And these were complicated meals, to be sure. Saturday's brunch consisted of pancakes, two kinds of organic bacon plus Canadian bacon, lots of fruits, hash brown potatoes, bagels and cream cheese, a couple juices, coffee, quiche, champagne ... you get the picture.  Everything was cooked perfectly, timed appropriately, and was quickly devoured by my appreciative guests.  

Sunday night's dinner consisted of a modified version of a pasta that caught my attention in The Silver Spoon, and a great chicken course which I adapted from a fish recipe on Kathleen Flinn's blog site. The pasta was an organic whole wheat penne rigate with a creamy arugula pesto and tomatoes. The chicken breasts were marinated in grapefruit juice, Dijon mustard, olive oil, and lemon pepper, which I baked and topped with a mornay sauce. Good stuff.

Which brings me to my kitchen disaster a couple nights ago.  I suppose I should have known that it wasn't going to turn out right, just given the way I put it together. I had vegetables from the prior night that were destined to be stir-fried as part of something with an Oriental theme. So what led me to the rest of the meal is something of a mystery at this point.  And as I walked around our friendly local Safeway I really had no clue what I wanted to cook for the evening meal.  

So I started with a little ham, which looked good and certainly simple enough - it was a "fully cooked" variety, meaning just heat and serve, right? And for a starch, I opted for a box of chicken based stuffing (and I can't remember the last time I bought something like this). I actually have no idea what led me to any of these items, let alone the notion that they'd be any combination of easy, good, or anything resembling appropriate to serve with one another.

I did the vegetables like I do stir-fried veggies all the time, and for some reason they just didn't cut it. The ham tasted like candle wax and the pineapple, sauce, and brown sugar didn't help at all. The pineapple tasted like the can ... never a good thing. Fortunately, the stuffing mix was great. Basically a two dollar box of bread crumbs and a mix that was probably no more than dehydrated chicken stock, to which I added two gourmet ingredients, butter and water. Had I known how bad the rest of the meal was going to turn out, I would have served a big plate of stuffing and be done with it! But NOOOOO, I had to add waxy ham and crummy veggies to the mix.  Pogo Possum (and my dad) used to use the phrase "phnfff" for this kind of situation. 

All was not lost however, as I had enough wine to temper my disappointment with the main meal, and then a big bowl of killer French Vanilla ice cream (a basic food group, again in my humble but correct opinion) to once again raise my spirits.

So today's a new day, tonight a new night, and another opportunity to either screw up another meal or (yay!) redeem myself. I opted for a pasta dish, which I always love, and would be hard-pressed to screw up. The French Laundry cookbook or The Silver Spoon can trip you up, but a tried-and-true method like I've been improving for 20 years? Never.

The basics: Chopped a large sweet onion (love 'em), and sweated it in olive oil at medium heat, covered. Added a half tablespoon of butter andabout 10 sliced Italian brown mushrooms, sauteed until they were done. One bay leaf, 2 cloves of minced garlic, a teaspoon each of dried basil and oregano (I know, I know ... fresh is always better. Give me a break, I'm still trying to get over last night!). Two cans of petite diced tomatoes with their juice. One can of tomato sauce. Pound and a half of browned top quality ground beef to the mix, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, pour yourself a glass of wine and let it steep for 45 minutes.

For the pasta, I opted for a whole wheat angel hair, as the sauce was relatively thin (no paste) and it seemed like the best way to go.

Cheesy garlic bread consisted of a loaf of Acme Italian Country Bread halved, butter, garlic powder, parmesan and cheddar cheeses, pinch of dried oregano, 3-5 minutes under the broiler (keep an eye on it - easy to burn and you'll be mad at yourself and have to contend with the smoke alarm going off too!).

The meal was awesome and I have plenty of leftovers.  Didn't make enough sauce to freeze (I commonly do), but there's enough everything for another night's dinner.  It was done to perfection, received the usual round of compliments (including from me), and I feel redeemed.  For now.  

So ... a couple subtle messages here; First, everyone screws up meals. I'm not a professional chef, but I can cook pretty much anything that comes to mind, and generally it comes out looking and tasting somewhere between good and phenomenal (I hear).  I'd recommend to all my loyal readers, regardless of your cooking expertise or how complicated your culinary ventures get, to keep at it. The first time you tried to walk, you probably fell down.  The first time I stood up on a surfboard, I fell off.  My first attempt at a drum roll didn't cut it. Get up, get back on, keep at it.  The main thing is to feel good about putting interesting, fresh ingredients together and presenting something tasty to your family, friends, or just yourself!  

End of soapbox oratory for today. 


Marjie said...

My 3rd son calls this "cooking by the seat of your pants", and, at 23, he's learning. He did actually suggest to me very recently that I should write a cookbook for college kids. He said that virtually all of his friends are completely unable to cook, and don't have parents who cook as I do, and therefore can't call them for "HELP!" Am I nuts to be actually considering this? Probably. But I'm always happy to see people like you who cook like I do! Thanks for visiting me, even if you don't comment! Glad you had a great Easter weekend.

Ginger said...

Larry I definitely like the pour yourself a glass of wine and let it steep for 45 minutes!! I have been cooking for 30 years and have had many failures and many successes. It is funny to look back and laugh about the goofs and wonder "what was I thinking?'

Pink Chair Ponderings said...

LMAO! I just love your "soap boxes" though I think there should be a more eloquent title for them than that, as well written as they are. I was experiencing the same "tweaking" or "monkeying" with a cake recipe this week. I am presenting it to a local restaurant this afternoon for a possible place on their menu! Let you know how it goes! Much adoration for what you do and share! HattieAnne

Karen Brown Letarte said...

Larry, I couldn't agree more. But I bet your meals were really more tasty than you give yourself credit for! Or at least the one with the waxy ham and tinny pineapple. Sorry to have been so quiet-- things have been hectic. Just keep cooking, and keep writing about it! I love learning new things from your blog.

:) K

Pink Chair Ponderings said...

I want a wine bottle tree!!! Dang with all I have consumed in the past I could have a forest of my very own!!! Oh, that's sounds pretty bad...oh, well. Anyway, just to let you know, I continue to admire your writing and adventures through which I live vicariously. I thank you for that. The restaurant thing was such a great learning experience. I just need my own. I learned that I can speak up and NOT compromise my quality for the restaurant's profit. My grandmother would be proud! Have a great and blessed week! HattieAnne

ARUNA said...

really glad to know that u've been cooking for the past 20 yrs! Not everybody is so passionate about cooking. nice meeting u!