Monday, July 23, 2012

Ruminations on my life as a cook

I've always wanted to like omelets. Quiche too, really. Veggies, cheese, eggs, maybe some chunks of meat... what's not to love? I spent two years when I went low-carb trying every omelet, frittata, quiche, and scramble recipe I could find. Nothing helped, nothing was good, even when other people were raving about the best of its kind they'd ever had.

Ultimately, I gave up. I looked at my quiche one day and I just told it, I don't like you. I'm sorry, I want to, but this is becoming a waste of good food. I think it's that I'm not a big fan of scrambled eggs, though I love them when they're that liquid pasteurized egg stuff that restaurants use, and cooked gently so they're still just a little runny, but the runny-ness will have settled out in the carry-over cooking before my plate hits the table.

I wish I could tell you this entry is some sort of epiphany and now I love these things. It really isn't. The only epiphany I had was that I could order scrambles and omelets with the eggs and filling separate. Restaurant servers look at me funny, but I end up with exactly what I want: Eggs, and a side of veggies, maybe some chunks of meat.

I did perfect my hash-cooking skills, though. Even potato-less hash. The key there is to use cauliflower instead of potatoes. Although really the key to that and any restricted diet is very simple: Go crazy with the flavor! Eat your heart out on the things that you felt were treats before, but are totally allowed on your new meal plan. Make those things as flavorful as you can. Add a few extra spices and seasonings, toss in a few extra handfuls of veggies if you can, and if something is calling you to include it, answer. More than anything, be fearless. Try new combinations. Can you imagine the look on the face of the first person who thought to put a lemon slice on top of their fish? Everybody probably thought that person was crazy, but now it's totally common practice.

I don't remember being given free reign in the kitchen, as a kid. I remember being given recipes and told to follow them, but never being told I needed to follow them exactly, unless I was baking. I DO remember the first time I surprised my parents by putting orange extract in the french toast batter in addition to the vanilla. I thought they were going to lick their plates. And english muffin pizzas were ripe for creative toppings.

My dad once came into the kitchen while I was making lunch to find me crawling on top of the washing machine to get to the baking cabinet above it. I vividly remember having waited until he had left to do this, because I was sure it wouldn't be allowed if I'd asked. However, he forgot something (or more likely, I'd been acting squirrelly and he suspected foul play), and walked into me pulling the coconut and chocolate chips and sprinkles out to put on my peanut butter sandwich. I remember his eyes watering with the effort not to laugh at me and what was probably the most guilty Caught Face in the world as he asked me what I was doing. I'm sure there was a long pause as I evaluated my options, and eventually determined that what I was getting down was rather obvious, so I'd better just confess. So I told my dad that Huey, Dewey & Lewey made me do it (ok maybe it was Chip & Dale?). That actually shocked him, and he helped me down off the washing machine with his mouth and eyes wide open, jaw working hard to figure out how to respond to that. Eventually I got a "uh-what?" So I pointed to the Disney kids cookbook on the counter, where it was open to a page about making sandwiches. Chocolate chips and coconut were suggested toppings for a peanut butter sandwich. I'm almost sure I thought of the sprinkles myself.

Oh dear, did he laugh himself silly. When he managed to compose himself, he kissed me on the forehead, congratulated me on reading and being creative with the recipe, and told me to get my older brother to help put my ingredients away when I was done because it wasn't safe to be crawling on the washing machine by myself. And that perhaps I should, in the future, consider adding only one sugary ingredient to my sandwich. (In the future, I added a second layer with more peanut butter and some fruit, either banana or apples. Double decker peanut butter sandwiches for the win.) He must have told my mother about it because she asked me later how was my lunch? I tell you what though, it WAS delicious! Not least because it was my own creation.

These days I cook a little differently. When I made gumbo for the first time, I must have looked up 100 different gumbo recipes, all completely different. The one thing in common they had was a roux, which was a word I'd never encountered before. I read at least four different websites devoted to making the perfect roux. I slaved over that pot of gumbo for an entire day, simmering a whole chicken for the meat, then making stock with the bones, taking over an hour on the lowest heat my stovetop could handle to make a peanut butter roux, chopping veggies and smoked sausage with ever-loving care, peeling shrimp tails with a faint air of pleasure, and finally after 15 long hours (which to be fair was half sitting on the computer outside the kitchen door trying not to stare at my creation) I presented my masterpiece to my boyfriend and two friends who grew up in the south, one of whom has an aunt who owns a gumbo shack (though I wished he'd imparted this information before I handed him the bowl!). I wanted to ask them how they liked it, but everybody was too busy licking their bowls and asking for seconds. Success.

Not all my creations have been as successful, but we won't go into the story about the day my boyfriend took one bite of my first stir fry and offered to make me some nachos as I cried about my failure on the couch, and we didn't even save the leftovers. Actually I guess we will but that's pretty much the story. I've never had a failure that bad since outside of baking. But that's another story for another day.

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