Friday, September 16, 2011

Speakin' Out With My Geekin' Out - Part 2


I've always loved food. I understand that there are people who'll pretty much eat whatever - they have the attitude of the daddy rat from Ratatouille (whose named is Django, by the way). Food is fuel, and as long as what you're eating keeps you going, it doesn't matter what you eat.

I, however, am not a rat, nor am I unfortunate enough to be in a position where any nourishing food is acceptable. I do recognize that millions of people live in conditions like that, however, and that's maybe a good thing for a foodie to reflect on occasionally. My favorite cooking show, Chopped, is promoting No Kid Hungry at present, so maybe slide over there and have a look?

Anyway: Cooking. I never really paid attention when my mother was cooking, I just sort of marveled at the result. In fairness, she didn't really ask for my help or offer to teach me, either, and mom can be a in the kitchen. That's her space, and she flies around, busy, a whirling dervish of culinary activity (she's slowed somewhat in her later years, but only the pace, not the level of intensity - seriously, you should see the stuff she makes for our parties), but it's a hard environment to learn in. Some of that is because she has trouble talking about what she's doing while she's doing it.

So I learned to cook gradually. I lived on my own and would occasionally throw stuff together rather than make Hamburger Helper, but I was largely winging it and I didn't know any technique. Even for the first several years of my marriage, I would cook dinner, but it would safe stuff, stuff I knew how to make. And I'd call mom for help, and I made a lot of easy stuff like casseroles.

And then Chopped came on. If you don't know, Chopped is a show on Food Network wherein four chefs compete for $10,000. They each get a basket of three or four ingredients, then they have to make an appetizer for three judges in 20 minutes. After that, one of the chefs leaves the show (is "chopped"). Repeat for dinner, and then dessert, last chef standing gets the prize.

I don't know how I got into the show. I think that it probably came on before or after some cupcake show that Heather was watching and I got sucked in. I used to love watching Iron Chef, and this hit some of the same buttons - improvisation and working under pressure is sexy. But what I discovered as I watched was that the basics of cooking aren't that hard. You have to know some things about your ingredients and you have to know some basics (learning to make a good roux was one of the best things I ever did), but mostly, cooking successfully is about creativity, time management, and having a good palate. Which, apparently, I do.

So with that in mind, I had Heather and Teagan choose four ingredients and I made dinner (I did not, however, hew to a time limit). I don't remember offhand what that first dinner was, but I remember absolutely loving what I was doing. Solving a problem, being creative on a deadline (because although I don't restrict myself to 30 minutes for dinner, I gotta get it done in enough time to eat before bed!), and making sure that it tasted good - these were challenges that I wasn't used to.

A couple of years later, I'm still doing these "Chopped dinners" a couple of times a week (doing one tonight, in fact). Michelle chooses ingredients most often, though Sarah, Heather, Aaron and Teagan all contribute. My players in my ongoing Misspent Youth game consistently bring ingredients, as do players in my other games, occasionally.

I generally blog these dinners over at my LJ, but I'll do one here, just so you can see what I mean. Last weekend, I was to Lima (Ohio, not Peru) with Sarah to visit her mama. Her mama had come to visit and had dinner with us once before, and enjoyed my cooking, and so I wanted to cook for her again, with her choosing the ingredients. After her initial protests about making me work (c'mon, this ain't work), we got some ingredients picked.

My ingredients here were: trout, strawberries, moscado, cream crackers, and brussel sprouts.

Now, I've cooked with all of these things before, except the crackers (but I tried one, and it was just a cracker - like a thick saltine with no salt). I knew from experience that brussel sprouts play nice with bacon, so I got some bacon, fried it in a pan, and used the fat to sautee some onions and scallions. When those were getting soft, I threw in the brussel sprouts, cover the pan, and let them soak in the delicious bacon.

Strawberries are sweet and the moscado is a sweet-ish white wine. I knew they'd go well together, but I also didn't want to make a sauce, necessarily (I always seem to do that with fruit). Instead, since we needed a starch, I got some jasmine rice and made that, and then I boiled the strawberries in the wine until they got soft. I fished out the berries and mixed them into the rice, which was perfect - sweet enough to counter some of the bitter from the brussel sprouts, but not too sweet that it didn't go with dinner.

The fish, well. I love trout, and I like to keep fish simple. I brushed the non-skin side with egg white, mashed up the crackers to act as a kind of crust, salted the fish, and put it in the skillet in some hot olive oil. The trick with fish is letting the skin-side go until the skin gets crispy, which winds up cooking it most of the way anyway. Then I flipped it and let the crackers get cooked (fortunately, not burned).

Wound up being a good dinner, but the brussel sprouts came out really exceptional. Bacon makes everything better.

Anyway, bottom line, here is: Cooking is easy and fun. Try it. Stuff that you cook yourself just tastes better.